ISU 4U Promise students busy wrapping up first year on campus

Lorena San Elias on campus with friends

Lorena San Elias (kneeling center) with friends outside the Alumni Building. Photo courtesy of Lorena San Elias

AMES, Iowa – With the deadline for design portfolios looming, Lorena San Elias is a mix of nerves and excitement. The Iowa State University student is proud of the portfolio she’s built during her first year on campus, but it’s the waiting to find out if she’ll be accepted into the College of Design’s integrated studio arts program that is nerve-racking.

Just having the opportunity to apply for the design program still seems unreal to San Elias. She says she never doubted the mentors who told her she could go to college, but the question of how to pay for it always lingered. That question was answered when San Elias learned she was eligible for a 100 percent tuition award through the ISU 4U Promise.

“The ISU 4U Promise for me is just a huge blessing. At the time I remember thinking, ‘Thank God, I can actually do this.’ Even now I think, ‘If I wasn’t here, where would I be?’ Now that I’m here, I know this is where I’m supposed to be,” San Elias said.

The ISU 4U Promise program provides tuition awards to King and Moulton elementary students in Des Moines based on attendance (see sidebar). San Elias is one of 12 students who are part of the first ISU 4U cohort. In addition to tuition awards, ISU faculty and staff provide educational resources to prepare students for college. That support has continued now that students are on campus.

ISU 4U learning community bowling night

Members of the ISU 4U learning community attended a CyBowl and pizza night at the Memorial Union. Photo courtesy of Jen Leptien

Jen Leptien and Kyle Holtman designed a learning community with shared classes, weekly meetings and peer mentors, specifically for ISU 4U students. Retention rates are 7 percent higher for ISU students who participate in one of the 96 learning communities offered. Leptien, director of learning communities, says they also organized activities – attending a performance at Stephens Auditorium, bowling at the Memorial Union – outside of the typical academic environment to give students a chance to spend time together and have fun.

Darrick Burrage values that connection with other ISU 4U students. The performing arts major says he quickly felt at home on campus, but appreciates having a built-in support network when needed. San Elias agrees. Both say there is something comforting about sharing that common bond.

“It’s crucial to have that connectivity, otherwise I feel we might only see each other occasionally on campus,” Burrage said. “It’s nice to go through this knowing you’re not alone and there’s a group of people beside you who are in the same place.”     

Burrage and San Elias say the weekly meetings focusing on everything from financial aid to study skills to managing stress have helped them navigate their first year. They, like most ISU 4U students, are one of or the first in their families to attend college.

Using talents to reflect on their experience

Darrick Burrage and the cast of "This is Not a Pipe Dream"

Darrick Burrage (top right) and the cast of "This is Not a Pipe Dream." Photo courtesy of Darrick Burrage

Burrage has embraced the many opportunities on campus for performing arts majors. He wasted no time getting involved with ISU Theatre, earning a role in the production of “This is Not a Pipe Dream,” which opened a month after classes started last fall. Burrage also joined the comedy troupe, Grandma Mojo’s Moonshine Revival, which performs regularly at the Maintenance Shop in the Memorial Union.

So when Holtman, program coordinator of learning communities, assigned an end-of-semester project for the ISU 4U group, it only seemed natural Burrage would use his talents as a performer. Holtman says the students could create anything – a poem, comic strip, photo collage – to reflect on their first semester. Burrage wrote and performed a song. San Elias produced a video featuring her art and poetry (see sidebar for video of both).

San Elias says the video was a way to express some of the feelings she struggled with during her first semester. She explained how family is a central focus for many Latino students. Even though she is close to home in terms of distance, she says she still felt far away when moving to campus.

“I felt like I was missing something. I was used to always doing things for other people in my family and never really for myself,” San Elias said. “In talking with other Latino students, we know that everything we do is for the family. So being on campus, you feel this sense of burden or pressure that you cannot fail your family.”

Adjusting to campus life

There have been other adjustments for San Elias and Burrage. Much like any first-year student, they’ve had to learn the expectations of college classes, managing time for homework, work and other activities. But as multicultural students coming from diverse high schools and communities, they say their experience is also different.    

Once again, the support of their ISU 4U peers helps. Both also appreciate their monthly meetings with Martino Harmon, senior vice president for student affairs, who serves as a mentor for the ISU 4U learning community. The students say they can relate to the stories he shares about his experience as a college student.

In a similar way, Burrage hopes to mentor future ISU 4U students. He wants to be a role model and set an example for elementary students at King and Moulton who may think college is out of reach.

“Making the move to college is a scary thing naturally,” Burrage said. “But once you dissect it and look at it from a much wider lens, you can see there is more opportunity, more moments of happiness with friends and learning.”