Yasemin Tanyu couldn’t wait for the freedom that would come with moving away from home to attend Virginia Tech. When the university’s Summer Start program offered her the opportunity to move onto campus weeks before the beginning of the fall semester, she jumped at the chance and enrolled.

“I was ready to be independent and go off on my own,” said Tanyu, a first-year student majoring in computer science in the College of Engineering. “I wanted a chance to get to know campus, understand my study habits, and meet people — all of which has made me feel more comfortable going into the fall.”

The Summer Start program offers first-year and transfer students a chance to ease into campus life. The students move into residence halls in July and spend the next six weeks taking classes, exploring campus and Blacksburg, and building friendships. The early start allowed Tanyu to develop a routine while also getting familiar with campus resources and her favorite study spots before the hustle and bustle of the semester.

“Summer Start is an excellent opportunity for incoming students to acclimate to the university environment in small class settings,” said Michael Herndon, director of the Office of Summer and Winter Sessions. “The support students receive in the summer positively influences their academic habits in future terms.”

Virginia Tech is one of a select number of universities in the nation to offer such a program. More than 1,500 students have benefited from Summer Start since it launched in 2012.

Opportunities for Upward Bound students

In addition to first-year and transfer students, Summer Start also allows students in Virginia Tech’s Upward Bound program to get a taste of campus life.

Along with Talent Search, Upward Bound is part of TRIO Programs, a unit of Outreach and International Affairs. The federally funded programs help low-income and potential first-generation students graduate from high school and attain a degree. The university’s Upward Bound programs serve students in nine school divisions across Southwest Virginia.

“We have collaborated with Summer Start to send a select number of our Upward Bound students to the program, regardless of whether they will attend Virginia Tech or another higher education institution in the fall,” TRIO Programs Director Frances Clark said.

Sayra Miguel Damian of Roanoke planned to attend a community college’s nursing program after high school so that she could continue to work and stay home to help her family. She changed her plans, though, during an Upward Bound senior trip to New York City last spring.

A group of three women pose for a photo under a tree.
Sayra Miguel Damian (at left) enrolled in Summer Start at the encouragement of Jazmin Montaño Aguilar (at center), Virginia Tech TRIO Programs associate director for Upward Bound, and Billi Hutchings (at right), the Upward Bound advisor for Roanoke City Public Schools. Photo by Diane Deffenbaugh for Virginia Tech.

­Damian made new friends and found a new perspective in the Big Apple, realizing that she had the grades and ability to attend a four-year nursing program. Her Upward Bound advisor, Billi Hutchings, helped her find a program in Roanoke so she wouldn’t need to leave home. But Damian still wondered what it would be like to live on a major college campus. Summer Start offered her the opportunity to find out — for free — while also earning college credits.

“We pay tuition, room and board, books, and even provide laundry money and supplies to Upward Bound students who want to take part in the program,” said Jazmin Montaño Aguilar, TRIO’s associate director for Upward Bound.

The students must meet GPA requirements, and they must be enrolled in a higher education program for the fall.

“Summer Start is a great firsthand look into college. We try to take our students on college tours and all of that, but we can't mimic that residential experience during the academic year,” Hutchings said. “It’s a nice stepping stone into the deep end that they’re getting ready to experience.”

Small classes build confidence

Summer Start is filled with activities and fun, but it’s not summer camp. Students earn up to six Virginia Tech credits in a variety of courses. The program provides an opportunity to form ties not only with classmates but also with professors through plenty of one-on-one attention.

“Chemistry usually has hundreds of students in one class. My Summer Start class had eight,” Tanyu said.

Capped at 24 students, the classes give professors the chance to offer focused academic support to their students, helping them build a foundation of success as they begin college and often providing transferable skills sought by employers. And because Summer Start classes are kept small, professors are able to plan outings and hands-on lessons outside of the classroom.

Mike Ellerbrock, professor and undergraduate director in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the six weeks on campus help students understand their responsibilities in and out of the classroom, learn to trust faculty members and staff, and recognize the “privilege and beauty” of learning with diverse peers.

“My goal when I teach for Summer Start is to help incoming students acclimate to college intellectually, professionally, personally, and socially, which has been critical post-COVID,” he said. “It allows for a calmer start to the chaos that can come with starting college and a gentler adjustment to life away from home.”

Hokies leading Hokies

Virginia Tech students help with the adjustment to campus life. Working as peer mentors, they support, advise, and organize activities and trips that help new students get to know one another.

Many peer mentors, such as Adam Nguyen, are former Summer Start participants who want to give first-year students the same head start they had heading into fall.

“The program was really helpful in getting my feet wet when I was an incoming student. It let me understand my goals and passions — leading me to a double major in computer science and math,” Nguyen said. “I made a bunch of friends that I still talk with today. I couldn't imagine finding time to make friends while taking 15 to 18 credits as a full-time student during the regular school year.”

He said new students are often uncomfortable being tossed into a new environment and sometimes find the transition from high school challenging.

“In high school, there’s a lot more leeway in turning in late assignments and knowing that you could get to class in a minute's notice. I made sure to caution my mentees of some of the pitfalls until they get into the routine and rhythm of college life,” he said. “They grow a lot over six weeks. Gradually, they start talking to me less and less as they find their own groups and activities and become more independent.”

And, Tanyu added, it’s just plain fun being here.

“You are definitely going to find someone you like at Summer Start. There are so many different types of people here and things to do on and off campus. I even got the opportunity to go caving through Venture Out,” she said. 

Share this story