Preceptorial Assistant program gets a facelift

Many changes are coming to the University of San Diego, and the construction is just one of them. The Preceptorial Assistant (PA) program and the Living Learning Communities (LLCs) are also experiencing some major changes.

The PA program’s goal is to facilitate the transition of incoming freshmen to college academic life. In the past, more than 60 upperclassmen students would apply to the program, be placed with an LLC, and assigned to a preceptor and preceptorial class. PAs would then receive one unit of credit for their participation. Students who were selected to be in the program were considered PAs, mentors during the first semester of school. Starting next year, the name of the PA program and the titles of the people involved will change with the program’s restructuring.

Jonathan Bowman, the Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, explained that the PA role goes into an academic sphere that other student positions do not.

“The university has general consensus that students serving in these roles are essential to the academic transition for students across a variety of backgrounds and experiences,” Bowman said. “Just as a [Resident Assistant] helps students adapt to campus life and the residential experience, the [Preceptorial] Assistant models how to best navigate the complicated world of university-level classroom experiences.”

Co-creator weighs in

Merrick Marino is the Assistant Dean and Director of the Center for Student Success (CSS) and former co-advisor to the PA program. Marino explained that he and USD professor James Gump created the Preceptorial Assistant program in 2007. Prior to 2007, the preceptor program existed where faculty served as an advisor to incoming freshmen, but the role of the preceptorial assistant did not.

“We created everything,” Marino said. “We are basically the founding fathers of the PA program. It was from scratch. We laid out role descriptions, expectations, training, and ongoing oversight of student leaders. Dr. Gump received the approval for one unit course.”

Marino explained that everything about the current PA program exists because of Gump and his work. Gump ensured that PAs receive a one unit credit for being a PA. He also oversaw the faculty nominations and the process of matching PAs with faculty, while Marino himself worked with the PAC chair, student leaders, and training.

“We created a very strong structure,” Marino said. “We designed it so that students were in leadership roles. The [preceptorial assistant committee (PAC)] and PAC chair role was a way of monitoring progress of PAs throughout the semesters and to ensure that they were working effectively.”

Among the many things that will change with the transition, one of them is leadership. One of the fathers of the PA program and co-advisor since 2007, Marino will no longer have this position. Tess Nunn Eves will fulfull Marino’s position. Marino explained that the decision was a result of an external evaluation of the entire program which resulted in the programs physical move as well.

“[The PA program moving] was an outcome of the unit review process,” Marino said. “A decision that was made to bring the LLC program under the LLC office.”

This evaluation, in addition to switching the program to the LLC office, is also responsible for much of the program’s rebranding. The name of the program, created under Marino and Gump, will also change.

Name changes explained

One of the chief concerns surrounding the PA program was that few people actually knew what the term “PA” meant or what the assistants do. In an attempt to answer these questions, the program is undergoing rebranding.

Nunn Eves is the LLC coordinator, and she explained that, after a review of the LLC and PA program, the new name for PAs will be SAs, Scholastic Assistants.

“Current PAs came up with the idea of Scholastic Assistant,” Nunn Eves said. “Preceptor means a lot to faculty, but, for incoming students and parents, Scholastic Assistants are clearer terms.”

Bowman, a co-advisor of the PA program, further divulged the reasons for the name change.

“The name change of the program [from Preceptorial to Scholastic Assistant] is reflective of students’ desires to have a position description that more accurately reflects their service when they are applying to graduate schools or seeking careers or internships,” Bowman said. “Students found the old position description difficult for constituents outside the institution to understand.”

In addition to the PA name change, the LLCs are being renamed and consolidated as well.

“When we started piloting the program, there were three to five to nine [LLCs],” Nunn Eves said. “We noticed [there were] themes but not a lot of clarity. [The new names] align with the strategic plan and the Changemaker definition.”

For the fall of 2017, there will be five LLCs: Cultivate, Collaborate, Innovate, Advocate, and Illuminate.

Nunn Eves explained that the purpose of the new LLCs will be to allow students a broader sphere to reach across different disciplines and majors. Nunn Eves expressed that this will allow for a broader network of people and connections.

While the name change and LLC changes are the most prominent alterations to the program, the makeover is past surface level.

Last year’s PAC Chair, Sarah Shotts, explained that she is hopeful the rebranding of the PA program will overcome some past challenges.

“When I became PAC Chair in Jan. 2015, much of the program ran like a well-oiled machine, and most challenges that I experienced came about as issues do in a hectic, fast-paced weekend like OLÉ! Weekend,” Shotts said. “Though one challenge that has come up in the past is struggling to get all students to connect to their LLC themes; however, with the changes to the LLC program, there’ll only be five LLCs, each tied to a living area, so I think there’ll be more identity from students with their combined LLCs and living areas.”

PAs speak out

USD senior Emma Doolittle has been a PA for four semesters. She explained her role and experience as a PA.

“I have been a Preceptorial Assistant for four semesters, twice in the fall working with the Insight (Honors) LLC, and twice in the spring working with spring admits,” Doolittle said. “Each semester, my responsibilities include serving as a leader and group facilitator during orientation, checking in with my students throughout the semester both formally and informally, and more generally serving as a guide to their transition to life at USD.”

Doolittle shared that being a PA has contributed to her time at USD.

“It is a rewarding experience because I have had the pleasure to work with several students who have gone on to become very involved on campus and in their respective academic disciplines,” Doolittle said.

Doolittle, graduating this spring, is optimistic about the program’s changes.

“Student needs are always changing, and I’m impressed with the program’s flexibility,” Doolittle said. “As research continues to develop regarding the power of experiential learning and Living Learning Communities, many Student Affairs departments on campus have responded in kind to create a constantly improving student experience.”

Despite the changes of the PA program, not everyone is optimistic.

One former PA, who wishes to remain anonymous, noted that these changes won’t alter the program enough to justify the amount of time and money the university pours into the program.

“I decided to be a PA because I thought it would be good for the résumé, and good to form a close relationship with a USD professor,” the former PA said. “However, the training to become a PA was over the top, and extremely strict, so I began resenting my decision pretty early on. When the freshmen finally showed up on campus, and we helped with orientation, I realized that, while orientation is good to have, our orientation is pretty bad. None of the students wanted to participate in the stupid activities or ice breakers, and the events were extremely hard for quiet people to get involved.”

The former PA went on to add that freshman need more direct faculty support when transitioning into college academics.

“Freshmen need real academic advisors,” the PA said. “The preceptors are supposed to be their academic advisors before they declare their major, but most of them have no idea what’s going on and don’t care. The preceptor for which I was the PA didn’t even realize she was supposed to be the academic advisor, and told all her students that I was the one to ask about academics. Obviously, I knew nothing, which aggravated many students and left them confused and lost. Being a PA did nothing for me except bring me to the realization that USD’s orientation is not successful in easing freshmen’s stress. I know the PA program costs so much, and the money would be better used elsewhere.”

However, Marino explained that while he is no longer involved in the program he has faith in its future.

“Even though the home office of the program is moving, I believe it will remain in the hands of dedicated and competent professionals who care deeply about the student experience at USD,” Marino said. “Both Dr. Gump and I feel extremely proud about what the program has become. We had a vision and now we can say it has been realized. I couldn’t be more proud as to what it has become. It is an important part about what we do at USD.”

While the existing PA program has mixed reviews, faculty are hopeful that the new SA program will provide an efficient transition for incoming freshmen. As the LLC office continues to fine tune the new program, Nunn Eves explained that not everything is settled yet. As new PAs apply to the program, the USD community will look to see the new changes in the coming fall.