UW Synergy Program Prepares Students to Succeed

October 21, 2011
University of Wyoming junior Lauren Reidy, a criminal justice major with an emphasis in law from Chicago, credits the Synergy Program with her academic success. The nationally acclaimed program is a college readiness program for students admitted to UW but who need additional academic support. (UW Photo)

Even though Lauren Reidy, Cameron Nazminia and Dylan Kriescher were solid students coming out of high school, they still needed more academic assistance when they enrolled at the University of Wyoming.

The students -- Nazminia, who graduated last spring, Reidy, a junior, and Kriescher, a sophomore this fall semester -- all were enrolled in UW's Synergy Program as incoming freshmen. Synergy is a college readiness program for students admitted to UW but who need additional academic support based on high school grade point average (GPA), ACT scores and prerequisite course fulfillment.

The program is a "learning community" similar to UW's Freshman Interest Groups (FIGs), the Honors Program and Engineering Power Groups. The nationally acclaimed program for first-year students provides a challenging set of courses in a supportive environment, with smaller class sizes, usually about 18 students.

Four general education courses are offered in the first year: college composition and rhetoric, U.S. and Wyoming government, introduction to public speaking, and critical reflection in intellectual communities (a reading and research-focused course).

"The program intentionally includes general education courses that highlight important skills for entering students, such as college-level reading, writing and speaking," says April Heaney, the program's director. "Faculty often say that their students in Synergy courses bring remarkable critical thinking skills to their coursework. While previous schooling experiences vary a lot among Synergy students, many thrive in a college environment where they can work with challenging topics and build an academic community."

The Synergy Program is expected to grow as the university better defines the knowledge and skills students should have to be successful in higher education. This could boost participation in the Synergy Program from about 150 students to approximately 300.

Students in the Synergy Program meet with their peers and faculty for several hours the weekend before the fall semester begins to build community, discuss the transition to college and be introduced to course themes.

Reidy, a criminal justice major with an emphasis in law, is a junior from Chicago. She originally wanted to become a pharmacist, but her overall academic performance put her at the lower end of the requirements for UW's pharmacy program, even though she had a 3.5 GPA in high school.

She participated in the Synergy Program her first year at UW and found the experience the turning point of her academic career. Even though she has since switched her career focus, she credits the program for her success.

"I had a great experience being in the program. I loved it and I think it should be offered to more UW students because it truly is beneficial," she says. "It helps being with the same students in one or two classes, and you come together as a group. It helps to build relationships. It was nice to have those friendships so we could all study together, which helped me a lot."

Reidy, who followed her father to UW -- Michael Reidy was a four-year letterman on the UW Cowboy football team in the mid-1980s -- says she had such a great experience in the program that she became a peer mentor the following year for the next Synergy Program class.

"I loved the program and developed a great relationship with the faculty," she says. "I have had so much success here at UW due mainly to the instructors. I never had that much personal assistance before."

According to UW statistics, conditionally admitted students are at increased academic risk in their first year of college, Heaney says. However, since the program's inception, students participating in the Synergy Program have earned higher GPAs and experienced 20 percent lower academic probation rates than students with similar needs who did not take part.

Nazminia, from Denver, also praised the program, which set him in the direction to succeed in college. He graduated in May with a B.S. degree in finance with a minor in banking and financial services. This past summer he interned at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and is now working on his M.S. degree in international political economy at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.

He says the Synergy Program "embedded within me a true sense of UW being the right place for me" and led him to become active on campus. He was the Associated Students of UW president his senior year.

"The Synergy Program provided me the opportunity to broaden my horizons at a top-tier university and successfully launch my academic career with supportive and top-notch faculty," Nazminia says.  "Participating in the program was hands down the most important factor in solidifying the success I ultimately had while pursuing my undergraduate degree at UW."

Kriescher, who graduated from Casper's Natrona County High School in 2010, says of all the student success programs he researched, the Synergy Program ranked atop his personal list. He is a psychology major.

"I have never seen a student success program such as this one care as much for its students," he says. "The program helps in making the transition into college life that much easier."

Kriescher adds that the program helped prepare him for writing papers, especially research work.

"I've used everything that I learned through the program about how to write a research paper for all my classes now," he says.

The Synergy Program has received two major national awards for undergraduate teaching and curriculum design -- an award in 2004 for innovation in writing instruction and in 2007 the Hesburgh Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and Learning.

"Expanding access to this program to more incoming students will increase their chances of success at UW and create more opportunities for students to connect meaningfully with peers and instructors," Heaney says.

Synergy Success

How UW Synergy students compared to students with similar academic preparation who did not participate:

Higher first-semester grade point average: 2.14 vs. 1.78.

Lower probation rates: 40 percent vs. 60 percent.

Higher retention rates: 55.6 percent vs. 51.8 percent.


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