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April Heaney, who has influenced the success of thousands of University of Wyoming students, is one of 10 individuals honored by a national organization that promotes efforts to assure the success of first-year students nationwide.
The National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition named Heaney as an Outstanding First-Year Student Advocate. It recognizes individuals “who are doing exceptional work in the areas of student learning, development and success.”
The center, based at the University of South Carolina, notes, “These educators share a common goal of improving the educational experience for entering college students. They are recognized for their exceptional work on behalf of first-year students and for the impact their efforts have on the students and culture of their institutions. Their methods for doing so are uniquely responsive to the particular institutional settings of which they are a part.”
Heaney directs UW’s nationally acclaimed Synergy Program that provides a challenging, supporting environment for first-year students and that has resulted in higher grade point averages and improved student retention rates.
Heaney’s award comes as no surprise to those familiar with the Synergy Program. Colleagues note that she “has a gift for interacting with and motivating first-year students.”
Student comments reflect the program’s positive, supporting environment.
One student noted, “Meeting our individual instructors made me feel even more appreciated and understood. They were happy to have conversations with us, joke with us as equals, not as lowly students that they had to try to get through their classes. There was a sense of being part of a team. That sense of being believed in made it possible for me to see in myself that I could succeed.”
Though the program was required of all students admitted with support between 2005-13, Heaney worked to guarantee student choice, especially regarding the opportunity to select among a variety of engaging course themes. When admission requirements changed, Synergy, in fall 2013, expanded to support approximately 300 students, nearly 20 percent of the entering class. Heaney worked to create a directed, self-placement process that allows students a greater voice in shaping their first-year experience.
Past Synergy students have gone on to become, for example, president of UW’s student government, graduates of the UW Honors Program and successful students in graduate and professional programs. Heaney has worked to ensure that these students are seen (and see themselves) as an integral part of the university community and as active citizens in society at large.
Beginning in 2007, she also has influenced the experience of an even larger set of first-year students as the director of the UW Learning Resource Network (LeaRN) that includes such efforts as a tutor certification program, a mentor program, supplemental instruction and freshman interest groups (FIG) that allow students to make strong academic and social connections to faculty and staff. One student reported that his FIG was a “once in a lifetime opportunity as a freshman,” and another appreciated that FIG helped her “realize my major is really what I want to do.”
Heaney’s influence on student success is summed up in a nomination letter from one of her students, Dylan Kriescher of Fort Collins, Colo., a senior in psychology and sociology.
He wrote, “Because of my experiences in the Synergy Program, because of the opportunities I was offered and the ones those led to, because of how April naturally facilitates and promotes growth in those individuals lucky enough to have their lives touched by her, I and many others have succeeded and continue to succeed where we might not have otherwise. Not only have I acquired the skills and critical thinking perspectives that help me succeed, but I know my path in life because of April Heaney.”