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LEAD: a step in the right direction for new UW-Stevens Point students

Incoming first-year student Ngan Ho, Green Bay, can't wait to start classes on Sept. 2 at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

"I'm so excited and I'm looking forward to everything," Ho said. "I'm ready for it all."

But unlike many of her soon-to-be classmates, Ho is already living in the residence halls on campus, taking courses, meeting friends, learning about campus resources such as tutoring, advising and counseling, and bonding with her upperclass student mentor.
She and 95 other first-year students are taking part in a free summer bridge program, Learning, Empowerment and Discovery (LEAD). The program offers students a supportive two-week session that helps transition to college life.

The program relies on student staff and mentors, faculty and other staff members to guide the students, meet with them regularly and join them in social activities. The first-year students move into residence halls early at no cost and earn a $1,000 Invest in Your Purpose Scholarship. Their course schedule includes critical thinking, academic skills, equity, diversity and inclusion, and math skills, as well as time to meet with advisers and visit campus resource areas.

"LEAD is a perfect opportunity for our new students to grow," said Sylf Bustamante, one of the program's directors and coordinator of the Queer Resource Center. "Our mentors and teachers guide them to the tools they will need to care for themselves and succeed, to help them become the adults that they are."

Students in the program identify as first-generation students, members of a historically underrepresented ethnic group or as a part of the LGBTQIAA+ community, Bustamante said. LEAD offers them mentors and peers who are relatable, connecting them and giving them a sense of community on their new campus.

"I'm learning about new things, new people and this community," Ho, a natural science education major, said. "Everyone has different backgrounds and cultures. We're also learning that in college, learning isn't just about taking it in and spitting it out – you really have to think it through further. It really opens your mind up."

Maverick Vang, a biology major from Eau Claire, thought the program would be a perfect way to meet people and get used to campus. In addition, he said he realized what college could offer him.

"Unlike our high school courses, college is about critical thinking and coming up with our own ideas," he said. Vang was first interested in UW-Stevens Point when he learned about its new state-of-the-art Chemistry Biology Building, so it was fun to attend LEAD classes there.

"I love learning," he said. "I'm excited to learn in the direction I chose for myself."

Many of the student mentors participated in LEAP, the former summer bridge program that offered group activities and a close bond between older student mentors and new students.

"I knew how much that program meant to me, and I wanted to give back, especially for students from different backgrounds who may be at risk," said Eliza McPike, a senior majoring in family and consumer science from Madison.

She joined LEAP as first-year student at her mother's insistence. She loved her experience so much that she was a two-year LEAP mentor and now is a student staff member for LEAD.

"Attending that first LEAP program was the best thing I could've done," she said. "I found the resources and support systems I would not have found on my own. I'm still in touch with my first mentor, who now has her master's degree."

Elizabeth Affolter, a junior from Colfax majoring in special education, mentors 10 students in the LEAD program, including Ho. She also is a LEAP alumna whose own mentor helped her realize she could ask for help when she needed it. She too wanted to pay that favor forward.

"Building a relationship with these students means we are there for each other," she said. "It's amazing seeing them grow and open up." Helping her students find resources and advocate for themselves is also preparing her for her career as a teacher, she said. As a LEAD+ mentor, she will continue to meet with five students throughout the fall semester.

"Being a mentor and leader for students with different backgrounds has helped me understand different perspectives," McPike said. "I've grown, learned how to problem solve and adapt and be part of a team. These are all skills I will need in my career."

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