Students Engaged in Academic Leadership (SEAL) Cultivates Academic Success, Professional Development

SEALHasudin Pehratovic ’15 (BUS) says that the SEAL program has taught him to, “Never take anything for granted and always give back.” And if that’s not enough, the accounting major adds that the program has helped him with everything from questions of dining etiquette—’The bread plate goes on the upper left, the water glass on the upper right,’ he says with a smile—to introducing him to key UConn faculty and administrators as he explores career opportunities in his chosen field.

Pehratovic, who was born in Bosnia and came to Connecticut with his family in 2000, is one of 21 juniors and 13 sophomores who make up the first two cohorts enrolled in Students Engaged in Academic Leadership (SEAL), developed through UConn’s Office of Diversity.

Aimed at students who are the first in their families to attend college, admission to SEAL is through a competitive application process offered to first semester sophomores. Those accepted stay in the program from the second semester of their sophomore year through their senior year providing they maintain GPA requirements and are actively engaged in required activities. During this time, they receive stipends of approximately $500 per semester as they are exposed to networking and mentoring opportunities, internships, and organized team-building exercises.

Jeffrey Ogbar, vice provost for diversity, explains the genesis of the program at UConn this way: “The University does a great job of providing support for various groups of students: The Honors Program, Leadership Legacy through the Office of Student Activities, opportunities such as Upward Bound, Upward Bound-STEM, and McNair Scholars, that are federally-sponsored initiatives for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. We reach out to a wide variety of students.”

“But we found we were missing an important group – and that’s students who are the first in their families to attend college. This group, which we refer to informally as First Gen, has a disproportionately high dropout rate, particularly between their sophomore and junior years. We wanted to do something positive to reverse that trend.”

Ogbar explains that this is not a situation unique to UConn. Although overall our graduation rates are significantly better than the national average—with an 83% six year retention rate—on a national level only 26% of First Gen students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within eight years.

Reasons given for a high attrition rate include the fact that these individuals may lack a support system that includes parents who have experienced college and who support the idea of higher education. These students tend to be older with additional work and family responsibilities. And in some cases they come from a lower socio-economic status which makes paying for higher education more difficult.

“UConn’s SEAL program is aimed exclusively at first generation college students regardless of their race, ethnicity, or economic status,” says Ogbar. “As long as applicants have a GPA of at least 2.5 and are committed to developing their leadership and academic skills, they are welcome to apply.”

Kelly Sanchez ’15 (CLAS) and Shantel Honeyghan ’15 (CLAS), both members of the first cohort chosen last year, agree with Pehratovic that SEAL has provided a variety of important opportunities.

A native of Jamaica who lives in Hartford, Honeyghan was first introduced to UConn through the Teacher Preparatory Studies Program at Bulkeley High School. This initiative, which partners high schools with the Neag School of Education, is designed to encourage talented students, particularly from minority groups, to become teachers.

She says, “When I first came to UConn I thought I wanted to major in education because I had so many positive experiences with faculty from Neag when I was in high school. But, somehow I wasn’t confident in my choice. I took a close look at myself and evaluated my interests and now I have a double major in English and Human Development & Family Studies. I’ve decided that I want to get a master’s degree—and eventually a Ph.D.—in higher education and student affairs.

“Part of my decision is the example set by Dr. Ogbar, by Dr. Price in the African-American Cultural Center, and by others I’ve met through SEAL and my exposure to leadership activities. Diversity and multi-culturalism are very important to me and I hope I can give back by eventually working in an office of diversity initiatives or an office of civic engagement.”

Like her peers in the program, Sanchez who hails from New Haven, gives SEAL high marks for exposing her to leadership opportunities and introducing her to individuals on campus who serve as mentors and role models.

“I knew from the time I was in high school that I wanted to major in psychology and when I went for my interview [for the SEAL program] I met Michelle Williams and she has been a wonderful mentor for me – being there when I need her and encouraging me to every step of the way. What I didn’t anticipate was how much I would be inspired by Professor [Guillermo] Irizarry‘s course in Puerto Rican & Latin American studies. As a result, I now have a double major in Psychology and Latin American Studies and I hope, someday, to work as a clinical psychologist.

Williams, associate vice president for research and associate professor in the Department of Psychology, and Irizarry, associate professor of Literatures, Cultures & Language, are examples of the types of relationships forged between students and campus leaders envisioned by Ogbar and SEAL program administrator Seanice DeShields, director of diversity initiatives in the School of Business.

“We’re really encouraged by the progress of this program,” says DeShields. “We have only lost one student so far—and that’s because of a transfer to another school—and the collective GPA of students in the program is over 3.3 and on the rise. We’re really excited about the future and the number of First Gen students who will be graduating from UConn in years to come.”

SEAL is currently funded by a five-year grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation.

Pictured: Jeffrey Ogbar, vice provost for diversity, left, Shantel Honeyghan ’15 (CLAS), and Hasudin Pehratovic ’15 (BUS). (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

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