May 2017 Newsletter: Spartans Meet Civil Rights Icon on Spring Break

Photo: Michael Cheers San Jose State Spartans meet with Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis during an alternative spring break trip in March.

Photo: Michael Cheers
San Jose State Spartans meet with Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis during an alternative spring break trip in March.

By David Goll

When they first heard in the fall semester about a trip to the East Coast planned for spring break week in March coordinated by the African American Student Success Task Force, Chelby Gill and Adesuwa Obaizamomwan were intrigued by the academic and professional possibilities.

Now that they have completed their first trip to New York and Washington D.C., both students view it as a life-changing experience. They were among a group of 16 students who took part in an Alternative Education Spring Break trip. The students were accompanied by Dr. Michael Cheers, co-chair of the task force, associate professor of photojournalism, and photojournalism coordinator; Jahmal Williams, the interim assistant director of the Peer Connections Tutorial Program and Student Development; Felicia McKee, administrative assistant to the AVP for Strategic Communications and Public Affairs; and alumna Wanda Hendrix, ’77 Sociology, ’94 MPA, a member of SJSU’s Tower Foundation board of directors. Hendrix and College of Social Sciences Dean Walt Jacobs provided scholarships to cover part of the cost for students within that college to participate in the trip.

Gill and Obaizamomwan said they viewed a visit to The Studio Museum of Harlem in New York City — one of the nation’s foremost showcases of the works of art by people of African descent — as one of the trip’s highlights. Obaizamomwan, a senior majoring in psychology, said she also loved seeing such famed Big Apple sites as Central Park, Times Square and seeing a production of “The Lion King” at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre. Nearing graduation and because of her interest in attending graduate school to pursue politics and public policy, she was also excited to tour the American University campus in Washington.

But spending time in the nation’s capital with John Lewis — the 77-year-old Civil Rights icon who suffered a fractured skull while participating in the famed 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama and has served as a member of the House of Representatives from Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District for the past 30 years — was a once-in-a-lifetime honor, both said.

“It honestly felt surreal to meet Rep. John Lewis,” said Gill, a sophomore majoring in political science. “The feeling was much different than just meeting some celebrity. The moment had so much more meaning because this man is a Civil Rights icon. I loved hearing him talk about his experiences in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Obaizamomwan said Lewis talked a lot about his activist past, connecting it to the students of today.

“He talked to us about activism in the past and today,” she said. “He said how important it was for us to be active as leaders in student government and in social issues. And also how to stay mentally healthy while doing that. He talked about how he is still fighting today. And he said if you don’t think things have gotten better, take a walk in his shoes.”

Along with being a living legend, the Congressman is also very much of the current day. After all, he attended the annual Comic-Con International convention, the pop-culture entertainment and comic gathering in San Diego, two years ago to promote his Civil Rights trilogy and illustrated memoir “March: Book Two” released in 2014.

“He took selfies with us,” Obaizamomwan said of the meeting with Lewis in Washington.

That longer-than-expected meeting between the SJSU students and Rep. Lewis was months in the making, Cheers said, of coordinating the meeting. After getting no response to his initial round of emails to Washington D.C., Cheers took a different tack.

“I called his office in Georgia,” he said. “We were able to arrange for a visit to his Washington office, but were told it would probably only be for a few minutes.”

The meeting ended up lasting far longer, even as Lewis’ staff reminded him of other appointments in his busy schedule.

“He really got into it and became so engaged with the students,” Cheers said. “He personally signed copies of his book for every single student.”

The trip to Washington was a bit of a homecoming for Cheers, who attended graduate school at Howard University. Howard “rolled out the red carpet” for the SJSU students when they visited the historically-Black university campus during an hour-long presentation of its graduate programs. He said he hoped it would spark an interest among students to look into graduate programs at historically-Black colleges and universities, located in the East and South.

The visit also allowed students to connect with successful Spartan alumni. They met with Robert R. Rigsby, a 1983 SJSU graduate who is now an associate judge on the District of Columbia Superior Court, and Bayo Junyor, a 2012 SJSU graduate who went on to earn a master’s degree from New York University, and is now a science teacher at Ascend Middle School, a charter school in Brooklyn.

Cheers said he feels it’s important to get SJSU students out of their “Bay Area bubble” and into the larger world.

“I want to empower them and give them exposure to a wider world,” he said. “I think that in order to close the achievement gap (for African-American students), you have to expand the opportunities.”

May 2017 Newsletter: Peer Connections Provides Resources and Support

Photo: James Tensuan Junior Film student Heriberto Zavala works in Peer Connections, a support service that provides peer mentoring, peer tutoring and supplemental instruction.

Photo: James Tensuan
Junior Film student Heriberto Zavala works in Peer Connections, a support service that provides peer mentoring, peer tutoring and supplemental instruction.

By David Goll

Peer Connections, a program offering holistic academic support to students, is playing an integral role in efforts to improve the rate of student success at San Jose State University.

Deanna Peck, Peer Connections director, is hopeful about expanding and enhancing their services in coming years. Having been hired to improve and expand the program five years ago, Peck has seen the number of tutors, mentors and supplemental instruction leaders increase from 25 two years ago to 60 this spring. That could double to 120 by fall with more funding.

The services are aimed at helping students not only survive but also thrive throughout their college experience, especially in difficult classes with high-failure rates or first-year classes through which students are learning what it means to be a Spartan. University officials expect Peer Connections will provide significant support as part of the Clearing Bottlenecks initiative — one of SJSU’s Four Pillars of Student Success adopted by the university to improve the student experience while also keeping students on track to graduate in four years for first-time freshmen or two years for transfer students. Currently, the average time is 5.2 years for first-time freshmen.

Peck said tutors generally work with students on class content, while mentors focus on assisting students with study strategies, time and stress management issues. Supplemental instructional leaders are assigned to facilitate study sessions for classes with high failure rates.

“San Jose State’s current emphasis on peer education and leadership is exemplary,” Peck said. “It’s an exciting time for the program.”

Tutors and mentors who work in classrooms or the spacious study area inside the Student Services Center earn more than minimum wage and average 9 to 12 hours a week on the job.

Lauren Cordova, a peer mentor, behavior science major and one of this year’s outstanding graduating senior recipients, said she works with many student athletes grappling with time and stress management issues. Michael Fashola, a chemistry major and peer tutor, said he fields many questions from students in chemistry classes about specific problems from lectures or homework. Sonnan Naeem, a peer tutor and anthropology major, said he finds satisfaction guiding fellow students as they work through some of the same problems he had earlier in his academic career.

Having already dropped a physics class at Ohlone College in Fremont, student Haider Syed said he knew when he transferred to SJSU in fall 2014 he would need help from tutors for such classes as physics and calculus. The former engineering major found Peer Connections online his first semester, but also saw presentations about it in classes.

“About a month into my first semester, I started using tutors,” Syed said, adding he has continued to do so off and on. “One semester, I had help from four tutors for three courses.”

Though Syed switched his major to business, he still uses tutors two hours a week.

“The tutors are there to help me,” he said. “I make a note of a problem I have during a class and discuss it with them. I bring my textbooks if I have a homework problem I don’t understand. I can pass these classes on my own, but I feel tutors have helped me get higher grades.

Ingrid Salazar, a junior majoring in environmental studies who transferred to SJSU last fall, brings homework to the Student Services Center an hour before an appointment with a tutor.

“It provides a nice, quiet area to study,” Salazar said. “The free breakfast is nice, too.”

She learned about Peer Connections from a classmate. Several weeks into the fall semester Salazar said she wasn’t faring well in pre-calculus. Vowing not to fail a class, she started working with tutor Jacky Cheng, a chemical engineering student.

“He helped me quite a bit,” Salazar said. “He took things slowly and deliberately, going step by step. I needed that.”

Salazar noted she felt overwhelmed at times in her class.

“I kind of felt like I was drowning,” she said. “Jacky was very calm in his approach. He provided me a lifeline in that class.”

She’s working with him again this semester after struggling with a chemistry class. Salazar said the help she has received from tutors will assist her in graduating on time. She hopes to join the Peace Corps.

Another student who frequently visits Peer Connections to study and improve his skills and gain confidence is Martin Tran, a junior majoring in Creative Arts. He heard about the program on a campus tour. Like Syed and Salazar, he has worked with tutors, but also mentors.

“This is a great place for me because I’m able to get help on assignments,” Tran said, adding he receives assistance on study skills to prepare to take upper division courses as a disabled student.

“We reflect on assignments, we attempt to solve problems together, we communicate often via email. Tutors prepared me well when I took the writing skills test to get into upper division (courses) and meet a graduation requirement.”

University officials allocated $2.8 million for clearing bottlenecks during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years – classes that have long wait lists that are a prerequisite to make progress toward degree as well as courses with high-failure rates.

It may already be bearing fruit. The number of units taken by both the overall student body and among new students has seen a slight uptick, according to Dr. Stacy Gleixner, SJSU’s interim associate vice president for Studen t and Faculty Success.

“We’re focused on providing greater access to classes and improving student performance in high-failure rate classes,” Gleixner said.

According to university statistics, the average unit load (AUL) for all SJSU undergrads last fall was 12.7 units, compared to 12.4 for the fall 2015 semester. Students who attempted to take a full semester load of 15 units increased significantly last fall compared to a year before: from 18 percent to 33 percent among freshman, 28 percent to 36 percent among sophomores, 28 percent to 31 percent among juniors and 29 percent to 31 percent among seniors. Among new transfer students at SJSU, it increased from 14 percent to 20 percent.

A 2015 study by the Public Policy Institute of California spurred action on this issue not only by SJSU and California State University leaders but by members of the state legislature. It predicted a shortage of a million workers with bachelor’s degrees by 2025, and another deficit of 500,000 workers with at least some college course work.

High-failure rate classes exist in every college. Sometimes high failure rates in classes can be an issue of technology, while at other times, students struggle because they lack the proper background and prerequisites to succeed in a difficult course, Gleixner said. Her team is working to increase awareness of the tutoring, mentoring and supplemental instruction services offered by Peer Connections while seeking out additional funding to expand services.

May 2017 Newsletter: ITS Creates Altamont Center to Engage Student Interns

15SJSU students intern with the campus’ Information Technology Services team to support student success.By Barry Zepel

Classroom-based learning provides the foundation for earning a degree; learning in a hands-on, real-life setting sharpens skills to prepare a student for a career.

That is just one part of the strategy behind the creation of the Altamont Center in Information Technology Services (ITS) at San Jose State University, where 16 students majoring in a variety of disciplines are completing internships that help them develop the marketable skills desired by corporations and other organizations in Silicon Valley. Interns work on projects involving data science, business intelligence, technical writing, software testing, software development and project management. Of the students, seven are undergraduates and nine are completing graduate degrees.

The students – who are in disciplines ranging from management information systems (MIS) to computer science to engineering to statistics – work closely with ITS staff on projects that move forward the goals of the department. The strategy is in line with SJSU’s Four Pillars of Student Success plan, with initiatives that support student engagement as a key pillar. Dana Nehoran, who serves as both a faculty member in the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business and a staff member in ITS, proposed the idea a year ago as a way to engage students through internships.

“The center employs students who are able to work on technical tasks related to their areas of study, while they also help achieve important goals and make a lasting impact on the campus community,” Nehoran explained. “Our student interns take part in essential projects that help SJSU provide more effective services for the entire student body.”

The students are mentored and supervised by full-time ITS staff members. The team Nehoran moves SJSU’s Four Pillars plan forward by identifying obstacles to student success, such as financial hardships, advising processes or inability to register for needed classes. The university can then focus resources on the areas that will have the most impact on improving graduation and retention rates. The interns are compiling and analyzing data, and ITS will distribute reports to help campus administrators make decisions about student success initiatives.

Together, the Altamont interns are providing San Jose State with predictive analytics. Nehoran describes it as “a discipline that attempts to make useful predictions about the future based on statistical analysis of historical data.”

“From the ITS point of view, we have this wealth of knowledge and capacity in these students,” said Bob Wrenn, SJSU’s interim chief information officer who oversees the department. “We have a lot of work to do here and we have a finite amount of resources to get it done. I can get students here who are highly trained and highly available; they’re on site and help complete the work we need done.”

The interns play an important role in the department, according to Wrenn.

“They are delivering real-life value working side-by-side with my permanent, full-time staff, who serve as their mentors and supervisors,” he noted.

Nehoran said the interns’ use of predictive analytics could have a positive impact for thousands of their fellow SJSU students, of whom 14 percent graduate in four years with the university focused on increasing that to 35 percent by 2025. The interns are analyzing historical information to find patterns that help identify students at risk of not completing a degree in a timely manner with the objective of enabling the appropriate campus services to provide proactive intervention.

While the interns realize that the “real-life experience” they’re getting will help them when seeking their first jobs after graduation, that isn’t all that is inspiring and exciting them.

“What we do here is going to add value to the campus community,” said Ryan Quigley, a second-year graduate student majoring in statistics. “We’re working under the umbrella of predictive analytics, which is using the data that the university has, to make predictions that are going to be beneficial to students’ lives.”

“Our main goal as Altamont Center interns is to make sure that the university’s resources are allocated efficiently. We don’t want (administrators) opening up class sections that are going to be empty, and we don’t want them closing sections that are going to be in high demand,” noted Quigley, who has already been offered a full-time position with a San Francisco-based financial institution as a result of his Altamont Center experience.

The internship program has had a profound impact on Nazia Khan, who like Quigley is a second-year master’s student and statistics major.

“I am totally a different person since I started (at the Altamont Center),” said Khan, who spent two years as a teacher in her native India after completing her undergraduate studies there. “I have more experience and confidence that I can survive in industry because of Dana Nehoran and the Altamont Center. I’m working on something that I am passionate and excited about because I am helping students to acquire their degrees and complete their education while helping to prevent them from dropping out because of emotional or financial reasons. We are able to help them by providing data to the professionals on campus responsible for directly helping those students.”

Additional information about the Altamont Center internships in the ITS Department is available by contacting Nehoran at dana.nehoran@sjsu.edu.

March 2017 Newsletter: Spartan Pride Increases Student-Alumni Engagement

Photo: Moses Kinnah SJSU Alumna Marina Donovan, '84 Public Relations, offers career advice to a current student during the Spartan Success Series 'Major to Career Exploring the Journey' event in fall 2016.

Photo: Moses Kinnah
SJSU Alumna Marina Donovan, ’84 Public Relations, offers career advice to a current student during the Spartan Success Series ‘Major to Career Exploring the Journey’ event in fall 2016.

By Barry Zepel

In the nearly four years since “Spartan Pride” became one of the five core areas of the university’s Vision 2017 Strategic Plan, San Jose State Alumni Association staff members have worked to engage and connect the various sectors that make up the campus community.

Two of the most important elements are students and alumni.

“We recognized what it means to be a Spartan,” said Brian Bates, associate vice president for Alumni Engagement and Annual Giving. “It is the determination, perseverance and grit that each of our students displays towards earning their degree and getting to be an alum, and the extra efforts that our faculty and staff members dedicate to helping the students reach their academic goals.”

Dozens of town hall sessions conducted by the university, in planning for Vision 2017, found that the campus community felt it was important to foster pride for “being a Spartan” in San Jose State University graduates even after they leave campus. Bates said it was important to make the extra effort to invite alumni back to campus and “make them feel welcome.”

“One of the things that emerged the last few years is how much they valued the opportunity to come back to campus and talk to the current students,” he said. “In addition to liking how the campus has changed, alums like how the students engage them and ask questions – many times the kinds of questions they might not ask their professors.”

One of the key initiatives related to the “Spartan Pride” goal has been the creation of a career-oriented program connecting students with alumni established in their fields or industries of interest.

The Spartan Success Series – hosted by the Student Alumni Connection of the Alumni Association – was created in partnership with the university’s Career Center, and held its inaugural events in the spring of 2015. It features career development events providing students and alumni with opportunities to network with industry experts made up of SJSU graduates. Sessions include on-campus and virtual workshops, panels and resume review conferences.

The program has continued to grow in the last few years as more than 400 SJSU alumni have volunteered as career experts, panelists and resume reviewers. That growth was aided by the creation of an online form on which alumni are invited to offer their time and expertise.

“Through providing a combination of both on-campus and virtual workshops, our students have learned to sharpen their skills, build their network, explore career pathways and acquire a competitive edge to carry them into the workforce,” the alumni leader explained.

“It is a win-win-win situation for our students, for our alumni and the university,” added Bates, who also serves as executive director of the SJSU Alumni Association.

Alumna Rene Siegel, ’88 Public Relations, is one of the most dedicated to current San Jose State students.

“I’m passionate about empowering people because I wish I had someone who believed in me when I was a scared and confused college student,” said Siegel, who is founder and president of High Tech Connect, a marketing and communications consulting agency located in Pleasanton. “I want to share my experience to help even more students find their confidence and build a career that reflects their own definition of success.”

Siegel, who earned a bachelor’s in Public Relations, also serves the university as a guest lecturer, was a keynote speaker for the SJSU Student Leadership Conference, and teaches a public relations class during the fall semester. In addition, she and her “team” at High Tech Connect have also provided job-hunting tips and advice for students as well as alumni, including online resume and LinkedIn profile reviews.

Bates noted that credit for the positive results of the Spartan Pride initiative, and specifically the Spartan Success Series, has to be shared by the entire San Jose State community.

“We (alumni association) couldn’t do it all ourselves. It wouldn’t have happened without buy-in from every academic and administrative department of the university, including Spartan Shops and Athletics,” he said. “Of course, having a dedicated force of alumni volunteers and enthusiastic students is key.”

December 2016 Newsletter: Peer Connections Provides Mentors and Tutors

Photo: David Schmitz Students visit Peer Connections location in the Student Services Center during an open house event in September. The program offers mentors and tutors.

Photo: David Schmitz
Students visit Peer Connections location in the Student Services Center during an open house event in September. The program offers mentors and tutors.

During a Monday afternoon just before finals week, SJSU’s Peer Connections mentors and tutors were gathered at small tables in the Student Services Center, ready to help other students with last-minute study support. Sana Rahim, a third-year business marketing major, and Fatema Elbakoury, a fourth-year English major, were waiting for drop-in appointments.

“I like working with students, especially returning students,” said Rahim, a tutor. “We build relationships with them and see their growth throughout the semester.”

“It’s a cool community,” said Elbakoury, who completed the Humanities Honors program and now mentors other students in the program. “We have staff meetings to get to know everyone.”

Blake Lonero, a senior psychology student, learned about Peer Connections through his own mentor as a freshman. The program provides mentors and tutoring services to Spartan students at three locations on campus – the Student Services Center, Clark Hall and Living Learning Center in Campus Village B.

“I wanted to get involved with Peer Connections because I ultimately want to become a teacher and knew that I would be able to gain valuable experience,” Lonero said.

The best part of having a mentor for other students is the emotional and academic support they provide, he said. His favorite part of mentoring other students is when he can persuade them to try out a resource on campus that will help them.

“Peer Connections is a valuable asset to ease the experience of being a student and I hope that everyone takes advantage of the services that we offer,” Lonero said.

Rahimeh Ramezany, a communication studies graduate student specializing in intercultural communications, said she has gained skills as a tutor that will help her in the field of education after graduation.

“We try our best to help students become more effective learners and not just with the material they come in to work on,” she said. “They walk away with study skills that will help them when they can’t come in for an appointment, and eventually, hopefully, they won’t need to come in for tutoring at all.”

Joyce Lum, a senior business administration major, said she first learned about Peer Connections from a friend who worked there.

“My favorite part of being a tutor is knowing that I have developed genuine friendships with both my coworkers and my tutees alike, some of whom I see on a weekly basis,” she said. “Rarely are there jobs where you enjoy what you do, feel like you are truly making an impact on those around you and afford the opportunity to connect with such amazing people.”

At first, Lum struggled with being a full-time student, being involved on campus and juggling two jobs, including working at Peer Connections. Her supervisor noticed and offered her guidance, teaching her that it was okay for her to seek out help, too.

“I believe what my tutees get out of our sessions is more than academic help,” she said. “They often come into our sessions feeling uncertain and stressed but leave in a much more optimistic mood. I feel as if tutors are able to instill hope into their tutees and this alone makes me love what I do.”