Summer Academy helps first-year students adjust to university life

The transition to college is an exciting but potentially overwhelming experience for students. Increased academic expectations coupled with living life away from home can strain students and for some, start the university experience on the wrong foot.

Virginia Tech Summer Academy is designed to ease the transition from high school to college to increase students’ likelihood for success. The program, which launched in summer 2012, allows first-year students to jumpstart their college careers by moving to campus in the summer, instead of waiting for fall, for a specially designed program of academic and co-curricular activities.


Jane Vance, an adjunct professor who taught The Creative Process during the 2012 Summer Academy, shows pieces of her art to students. Jane Vance, an adjunct professor who taught The Creative Process during the 2012 Summer Academy, shows pieces of her art to students.

Ashley Pierce of Newport News, Va., a first-year student majoring in animal and poultry sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said without the program she may have struggled her first year instead of thrived.

A time for firsts

If one adjective could be used to describe Pierce, “first” will suffice. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college and, beyond that, finish high school on time,” Pierce said.

At Virginia Tech, the firsts kept coming. “Everything I experienced in the Summer Academy, I never experienced at home. My mom is handicapped and money is tight. I did not get to experience what some other people have because of that,” Pierce said.

Even things many of us may not think about, such as a hiking trip, were all new experiences for Pierce. 


Ashley Pierce poses for a picture while hiking at McAfee's Knob with a group from Summer Academy. Ashley Pierce poses for a picture while hiking at McAfee's Knob with a group from Summer Academy.

“I had never been hiking, and I never want to go again, even though it was a wonderful experience,” Pierce said, laughing. “It really was beautiful up there. I did things through Summer Academy I never thought I would do.”

Tough transition

While “firsts” can be a good thing, the transition through the new experiences waiting for Pierce at college — academically and personally — was tough.

“My high school experience was so easy and I didn't even realize it. Teachers held my hand along the way,” Pierce said. “With college, you are the one responsible. Faculty members are willing to answer questions along the way, but ultimately, if you drop the ball, it's your fault.”

As a Summer Academy participant, Pierce enrolled in the nutrition and life sciences track to complete some of her major’s requirements. A good student, Pierce was not expecting to begin her college career almost failing.

“It was eye-opening for me,” Pierce said. “People would tell me college is going to be totally different, but I did not realize how different until summer academy. I have never been this challenged before in my life. For me, it was about letting go of my pride and asking for help.”

With the smaller class sizes and extra academic support available in Summer Academy, Pierce got the attention she needed to turn her grades around.

“What amazed me about Ashley was she did not give up,” said George Simmons, Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences, who taught Pierce. “Her resiliency and perseverance is way ahead of an individual of her chronological years. When she rolled back onto campus in the fall and sat in the front row of my class, she was not a first-semester student. She knew what to do.”

Pierce also conntected with Karen Eley Sanders, associate vice president for student success. A faculty member recommended that Pierce contact Sanders to talk through some of her challenges. They have formed a mentorship relationship and get together regularly.

“Ashley is one of the students I have ‘adopted’ to make sure they are on a good path to graduation,” Sanders said. “What we’ve found is that she is the typical first-year student and had the same anxieties. Just like any student, my team and I reached out to her to make Ashley feel comfortable and confident that there are many people at Virginia Tech who are here to make her academically successful.”


A student gives a presentation in an architecture class during Summer Academy 2012. A student gives a presentation in an architecture class during Summer Academy 2012.

Participation pays off

Pierce’s grit and determination during Summer Academy paid off in another unexpected way. She received a Virginia Tech Presidential Scholarship Initiative award , which rewards and assists academically talented, low-income high school students from Virginia who demonstrate persistence and a commitment to academic excellence, despite adverse life situations.

Typically, the awards are offered prior to enrollment. “She made connections through summer academy and proved herself,” Sanders said.

With financial concerns subdued, Pierce can focus on continuing success as a student, armed with the self-assurance she developed through Summer Academy.

“Summer Academy gave me a starting point,” Pierce said. “I knew where I stood versus the hundreds of other people in my first fall lecture course. I felt confident.”

New opportunities with Summer Academy

    Students work on a project during an engineering class in Summer Academy 2012.

Virginia Tech Summer Academy is expanding in 2013 after a successful launch.

  • Participants will have more than double the options of learning tracks, with 35 options compared with the 13 offered in 2012. Colleges and faculty members expanded their offerings after response from the inaugural summer.
  • In addition to new freshmen, transfer students will be able to participate.
  • Applications will be accepted starting Feb. 1, 2013, and closing April 15, 2013.

Multimedia: Summer Academy

  • Ashley Pierce’s Summer Academy Experience video
  • Summer Academy offers new opportunity video
  • Peer mentor video
  • Presidential Scholarship video

Summer session saves time, money

The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors approved a 10 percent reduction for summer session tuition compared with regular session hourly rates beginning in summer 2013 on a pilot program basis. By taking summer courses, students make progress toward their degrees more quickly.

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