11/1/16 | Across the nation, approximately 40% of freshmen abandon college before earning a degree. JWU’s new Talent Advancement Program identifies those students most at risk of dropping out for an initiative that tips the odds in their favor.
Rebecca Yearwood-Stinchcomb’s first real culture shock after moving to Johnson & Wales University’s North Miami Campus hit when she saw the jam-packed buses rolling down Biscayne Boulevard. “I’d never even ridden a bus before. We don’t even have taxis or cabs in my hometown. You just walk everywhere or ride your bike,” says the gregarious 19-year-old native of Mount Dora, a farming town of 12,000 people in central Florida.
That wasn’t the end of Yearwood-Stinchcomb’s bumpy adjustment to her new life in a booming metropolis of 2.6 million. She marveled at the diverse mix of cultures and languages among her classmates. She was dazed by the responsibility of balancing class schedules and meeting assignments. And she missed the simplicity of her hometown.
Given all those challenges, Yearwood-Stinchcomb '19 might easily have become one of the roughly 40% of incoming freshmen nationwide who leave college before earning a degree. But she had an advantage custom-designed to keep students like her on track at Johnson & Wales: the school’s new Talent Advancement Program.
The program, which debuted on the North Miami Campus during the 2015–16 school year, offers an innovative approach to an age-old problem for college administrators: When students come from a dizzying array of backgrounds and with varying degrees of preparation, how can schools create a one-size fits all program to keep them on track?
TAP, as the program is colloquially called, starts by tossing the idea of a uniform approach to such a complex challenge. Instead, it identifies incoming students most at risk of dropping out and then marries a weekly class focused on personal development with campus activities that build an affinity for the JWU experience.
The end goal? Making college work for the students most likely to be challenged by their new campus life.
“We had students with the potential to succeed, but they lacked the confidence,” says Senior Vice President of Administration Marie Bernardo-Sousa, LPD, '92, who was instrumental in the endeavor’s genesis. “For example, students might feel overwhelmed by their first failing grade. Through TAP we were able to change that construct to help them realize that failure isn’t fatal to their academic ambitions or goals.”
“TAP does a lot more than just provide a more equal playing field,” says Larry Rice, EdD, '90, president of the North Miami Campus. “TAP allows them to participate in college life in spite of what they may not have had coming in. It allows them to learn very quickly that they can complete college and that they’ve made a good decision by coming here.”
Rice’s own personal journey played a key role in TAP’s creation. Born and raised in rural South Carolina between Columbia and Spartanburg, Rice was the first in his family to attend college when he enrolled at the JWU Charleston Campus in the late ’80s. He soon realized that his experience as a college student differed greatly from many of his classmates.
“I had a single parent and I was highly dependent on student loans, so I had to work while I was in school to pay those loans,” Rice says.
That meant making hard decisions. While other students dedicated themselves full time to class and drove around town in their own cars, Rice took the bus or sometimes walked an hour and a half to class. He had to balance a job with his studies.
“I had to make difficult choices from the start. I wanted to compete in culinary competitions, but I couldn’t dedicate time to practice because I had to work,” he says. “I thought no one else understood what I was faced with in trying to complete college.”
Rice persevered, though, graduating and then managing a restaurant in Hilton Head, South Carolina, before moving to Florida to start his own private catering business and later earning bachelor and master’s degrees at Florida International University and a doctorate at Nova Southeastern University. By the time he returned to Johnson & Wales in 1993 as a faculty member, he’d long since realized that his difficult experience was far from unique.
In fact, a high percentage of Johnson & Wales students — particularly at the North Miami Campus — come from nontraditional college backgrounds. Many, like Rice, are the first in their families to attend college. Many others come from immigrant families. Rice wanted to build a program that helped students celebrate those facts, rather than viewing them as obstacles.
“We knew that for students who are first in their family to go to college, they don’t have that legacy of folks who did it already and can share their stories and their encouragement back home, and who can identify with what they’re going through,” Rice says. “But there’s something to be proud of in being first in your family to go to college. There’s something to be proud of in being African-American, being Hispanic, Dominican, Haitian, Barbadian, or any of the other cultures who come here to be a part of a diverse campus community.”
But how to foster that sense of community while also helping students adjust to the new challenges of college life? Rice and a committee of administrators began meeting in 2014 to try to answer those questions with a new program, which soon became TAP.
TAP PROGRAM MANAGER STELLA NAPOLES, PSYD + NORTH MIAMI CAMPUS PRESIDENT LARRY RICE, EDD, '90 PHOTOS: KARLI EVANS
What TAP is really doing is empowering these students to succeed in life.”
As they designed the curriculum, Rice knew exactly what he didn’t want it to become. “TAP is not a remediation program,” he says. “And it’s not just one course that’s designed to fit everyone.”
Instead, Rice and his colleagues designed a flexible, holistic program that starts on day one of school and stays with students throughout their time at Johnson & Wales. TAP begins with administrators analyzing the backgrounds of incoming students to find those most likely to benefit based on their academic record and personal story.
During their first term, those students then take a reduced course load and enroll in a TAP-specific class that meets twice a week for two hours at a time. That class hones in on teaching eight principles — from accepting personal responsibility to learning self-management to developing emotional intelligence — that all aim to foster success in the classroom. The program doesn’t end after that first term; throughout their time at Johnson & Wales, TAP students meet regularly and continue their work.
Once the program was developed, Rice brought on Stella Napoles, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, to teach the curriculum to the 135 incoming freshmen last fall who met the new TAP criteria. Napoles says TAP made intuitive sense to her once she learned about the concept.
“Students come into the university and even if they’re prepared academically, they’re often unprepared emotionally,” she says. “This course is all about bridging the academic and emotional perspectives. For most, this is their first time away from home and Miami is a big city. This may be the first time they’re dealing with a multicultural perspective.”
Napoles’ class is just the first piece of the TAP puzzle, though. When Rice and his team developed TAP, they didn’t simply want to teach students how to succeed — they also wanted to find a way to make them a part of campus life. So TAP students are also given a series of student engagement activities — from field trips around town to culinary events — to meet classmates and grow bonds on campus. Lastly, TAP also directly connects students to faculty members and encourages them to ask for help or stop by for advice whenever they need it.
“I find students have a very difficult time learning to ask for help,” Napoles says. “Society places a lot of that on an individual, that it’s all on your back. But that’s not real life. Sometimes you have to ask for help, and I don’t think many students are prepared for that.”
For the 135 students who constituted JWU’s first-ever TAP class, the program became more than a class — it became a mark of pride.
“We have a student who’s a tour guide and she proudly tells all the new students, ‘I’m in the TAP program,’ ” says Rice. “That to me is incredible. They get it. They see that TAP is only positive.”
That was certainly the case for Abraham Baullosa III ’17. The baking and pastry student had no doubts about his chosen field (at age five, he dressed up as Emeril Lagasse for Halloween), but he was anxious about the social aspects of college. How would he fit in, especially as a Midwesterner? Would he stay afloat without the support system of friends and family back in Indiana?
TAP helps me focus because it helps me plan my career.” -ABRAHAM BAULLOSA '17
“TAP enabled me to get a foundation group of friends and a mentor, plus we were engaged in activities around campus and the community,” says Baullosa. Creating and documenting weekly goals was transformative. “When I’d look at the list later and think, ‘I actually accomplished that goal,’ it boosted my self-esteem. One objective I set is to graduate with a 3.8 GPA or higher. TAP helps me focus on academics because it helps me plan my career; in high school I wasn’t really motivated academically.”
As an orientation leader, Baullosa tells incoming students that TAP addresses individual needs. “I needed self-esteem and confidence while another person might need the program to help him with study skills. TAP gave me the confidence to be myself and to put myself around people who will accept me.”
TAP was invaluable to Yearwood-Stinchcomb as well. For the central Floridian, an education at Johnson & Wales is the fulfillment of a dream. When she was twelve, Yearwood-Stinchcomb had already plotted out her life’s course. “I was making banana bread with my grandma and I was like, ‘This is really fun. I really like this.’ Every year, I would make more and more for our family and eventually I said, ‘I’d really like to do this for a living,’ ” she recalls.
But moving to Miami was a big jump from Mount Dora and in hindsight, Yearwood-Stinchcomb admits that “I wasn’t ready.” Luckily, she says, TAP soon gave her the tools to adapt to her new life — particularly its focus on time management.
“I have a whiteboard with my schedule on it that I still use in my room and I have another schedule on my phone,” she says. “We also learned a lot about taking on responsibility, that it’s not the teacher’s fault if you don’t follow through, it’s yours. You can’t blame everyone else for your problems. That’s really stuck with me.”
As Yearwood-Stinchcomb and her classmates move on to their second year, a new batch of freshmen started TAP this fall. JWU’s Charlotte Campus looks to adopt the program in 2018, and Rice says TAP may expand to other campuses in the near future.
“The TAP program has allowed our staff and faculty to put on a different set of lenses where we can see much more clearly the struggle of these students,” says Rice. “We can understand cultural differences at a higher level, we can understand the impact that different socioeconomic backgrounds can have and that being the first in family to attend college can have. What TAP is really doing is empowering these students to succeed in life.”
L-R: REBECCA YEARWOOD-STINCHCOMB '19; JADA SLOAN '18 AND GILBERT CUBIAS '20; LEIGHTON SAID '20 WITH A COLLAGE PROJECT. PHOTOS: KARLI EVANS