Students navigating multiple challenges often feel alone, contributing to disengagement and further struggle. However, good things can happen when such a student musters the self-direction and motivation to improve her life and help others in similar situations. Ileana Vazquez began her college journey in 2016 and joined the Rutgers community two years later as a transfer student and commuter. Managing ADHD and mental illness contributed to academic difficulty and made her feel disconnected. She first attended an academic coaching session as part of her STS course requirement, and then took the initiative to attend coaching again in 2021, trying to address the fear, lack of motivation, and overwhelm that had resulted in an inconsistent educational path.
Ileana’s belief that she was alone in her struggles shifted one day when she attended a Back on Track workshop at the Learning Centers. As she puts it, “There, I had a brief encounter with another student who was 23 years old and also had a history of falling behind in classes…That one interaction with a peer, where I could be open about my difficulties with someone who could actually relate, made me realize that I wasn’t the only one struggling with my classes and, even worse, with the shame of failure. And I realized that there were other Rutgers students like me who needed to feel less alone too.”
Driven to create connection for herself and others with similar challenges, Ileana had the idea to design an in-person support group for students who had fallen off track for any combination of reasons. She wrote a comprehensive proposal detailing three goals: creating a community of peer support, connecting students to resources, and teaching helpful strategies. She emailed the proposal to Lucille Leung, Assistant Director of Academic Coaching at the Learning Centers. Ileana’s proposal was so compelling that within just a few weeks of submitting it, the program is already set to be implemented. Last week the Learning Centers launched the Back on Track Support Group, led by one of the academic coaches and featuring Ileana as Student Advisor. Weekly meetings are scheduled to begin mid-April, with each meeting featuring unique programming. Within two days of being announced, the group had filled, with a waitlist.
The pandemic-driven pivot to remote learning has increased the understanding of the importance of connection in learning – and of how learning falters when connection is diminished or missing. When students face one or more challenges that reduce or threaten connection, such as transferring schools, stopping out, mental health issues, commuting, and/or remote learning, they often feel shame and a sense of failure that increases disengagement and impedes learning. The Back on Track Support Group will address this spiral directly.
The Learning Centers see this as just the beginning of an important, student-driven initiative to increase connection among students who stand to benefit significantly from the engagement. We commend Ileana for her leadership, and we look forward to working with her to refine and expand this program over time.
Students, do you have thoughts about how to improve your learning and your life in college? Bring your ideas to us and let’s talk. We stand ready to work with you to maximize your academic experience at Rutgers University.