New interdisciplinary mentorship program to enter pilot phase

By Oliver Heffron
Staff Writer

Starting this fall, the University of the South has started a new student-success program titled the RISE Scholar Program. In it’s pre-pilot phase, the program currently enlists seven freshmen students and four sophomore mentors. RISE is unlike other scholar programs because it is non-specific to major or academic interest. Its goal is to link student-leaders of all majors and background into network of support for one another, and offer personalized guidance and opportunities for RISE Scholars to thrive both while students at Sewanee and in their professional lives. 

Alyssa Summers, Chair and Associate Professor of Biology, spearheaded the creation of this program. Summers served as Director of the Summer Bridge Program for two years, a program that offers rising high school seniors the opportunity to study biomedicine at Sewanee for three weeks during their summer between junior and senior years. 

While serving as director of this program, which partially aimed to recruit high-school students to Sewanee, Summers realized the necessity for a new kind of scholar program, one that focused on the success and retention of current Sewanee students. Summers explained, “We don’t really have a program that looks at the overall freshman experience at Sewanee and look to bring equality. Equality meaning just existing on campus, a community-minded and not academic minded program.” 

Launching a new scholar program, especially one that differentiates from other existing programs, is a challenge for Summers and the University. Working with Karen Proctor and Dean of Students Marichal Gentry (C’86), Summers launched the pre-pilot phase of the RISE Scholar program at the start of the 2019 Academic year. 

The students in the pre-pilot phase play an integral role in determining what the RISE Program will look like once operational. Summers explains, “We told the applicants, we want you to help us design this program. We are very interested in student-success and what impacts student-success. How freshmen, from various backgrounds, are engaging in the Sewanee campus, engaging both academically as well as socially? What things are helping you succeed? What are structural challenges? What makes you think you cannot succeed at Sewanee? What things can we (faculty) help bolster in terms of self-efficacy and leadership-development in the individual to help you address these structural challenges.”

Students currently in the program applied over the summer. “We don’t want to tell you who you are, to apply to this. We want to tell you who you are, and we want you to select that you want to be a part of this.” Pravesh Agarwal (C’23), a freshman from Kathmandu, Nepal, is one of the inaugural cohort of the program. 

Agarwal described the personal nature of the program, “RISE Scholar program is ultimately a student success program, and depending on what you feel you might need to succeed in Sewanee, RISE could be a good fit for you. I say this because success for one might not be the same for someone else. Hence, I would think about what success means to me and the best part about RISE is that you don’t have to have an answer. It is already within everyone of us, we only need to learn about it and let it take an explicit shape.”

The RISE pre-pilot program has been a success, especially with helping students visualize careers that coincide with their desired areas of study. Students’ interests in RISE range from finding pathways to doctorates in STEM biology to visualizing a career in creative writing. Students in the program meet bi-weekly to discuss academic and personal issues as well as the state of their program. Summers and current RISE Students are looking at other student-success programs across the country and Sewanee’s own needs in creating the full pilot of the RISE Scholar program that will launch next year. 

Summers wants the RISE Scholar program to offer Sewanee students more than just academic assistance: “The goal is to extend the network between students and professors. It is important that during a students life at Sewanee, both during the good times and the hard times, that student’s feel they have advocates on this campus who want them to succeed.”