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UNG program provides learning community and mentoring
The Nighthawk Academic Success Program on UNG’s Cumming Campus provides assistance to freshmen on the cusp of either earning or losing the HOPE Scholarship. -Photo by Peggy Cozart University of North Georgia

A pilot program that provides a learning community and mentors for freshmen on the cusp of either earning or losing the HOPE Scholarship began this spring on the University of North Georgia’s (UNG) Cumming Campus.

Students in Georgia are eligible for the HOPE Scholarship if they have a 3.0 or higher GPA in high school and maintain that level in college or if they have a 3.0 in college after completing 30, 60 or 90 hours.

Students are enrolled in two classes together — English 1102 and Psychology 1101 — this semester as part of the Nighthawk Academic Success Program (NASP). Each student receives a $200 scholarship for being a part of the group. Four master of science in counseling students and two UNG staff members serve as academic and personal mentors for the NASP students. Plans are in place for a similar setup in fall 2021 and spring 2022.

Meredith Higgins, assistant director for retention in Enrollment Management on UNG’s Cumming Campus, said the counseling students were a natural fit to assist freshmen in the program.

“They are relatable mentors who just earned undergraduate degrees,” Higgins said. “They understand the struggles and challenges that first-year students face.”

Dr. Lori Furbush, senior lecturer of psychological science, teaches one course that is part of NASP. About half of the students in each class are participants in the program. She said students have responded well to the cohort model.

“I love the cohort because they’re working together as a group,” Furbush said. “They’re studying together, and they’re holding each other accountable.”

Jacinda Santos, a freshman from Cumming, Georgia, pursuing an associate degree on the exercise science pathway, said her first semester was tougher than expected.

“They are here to help me ease my transition and help me be academically successful,” Santos said.

Jaydin Lamanac, a freshman from Cumming, Georgia, pursuing an associate degree on the environmental health pathway, said she has enjoyed getting to know other NASP students.

“It’s a good thing to have friends in class that you’re close with and you can talk with. They can help you with what the professor went over if you don’t understand it,” Lamanac said. “It’s good to have that support system, and that grounding can help you out.”

Dr. Ann Marie Francis, assistant professor and coordinator in the English department on the Cumming Campus, appreciates that communal aspect of learning. She said it has been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re excited about taking what we’ve learned this semester and applying it in the fall,” Francis said.

Higgins said the goal is to have 15 to 20 students in each cohort going forward, and Higgins aims to recruit NASP participants to serve as peer mentors for future cohorts. If the program continues to serve students well, she said, it could expand to other campuses or departments.

Dr. Christopher Pisarik, associate professor of counseling, oversees the master’s degree students who mentor the NASP participants. He is grateful UNG can provide this opportunity to freshmen, as research shows how learning communities help them perform better in the classroom. 

“This is a great learning community. It could flourish,” Pisarik said. “I’m all in. It’s been wonderful for my students and the ones they are helping.”