University Park, IL,
12:02 PM

Center for the Tipping Point

When Ariel Donegan transferred to Governors State University, she was a Business major. She chose business because “it felt safe,” she recalls, but it wasn’t a good fit—and she knew it.

“A lot of people expected and nudged me in the business direction, but not one of them asked me what I really wanted to do,” Donegan said.

Now, her major is Media Studies. At home in her new field of study, she’s much happier and more likely to succeed. The catalyst for this move was the Center for the Junior Year (CJY) at GSU.

Without the CJY guiding me in the right direction, I would still be a quiet business major, playing it safe, doing what everyone wanted me to do. Everyone except me.
Ariel Donegan, Peer Success Coach, Center for the Junior Year

For many students, choosing a major is a big stumbling block. It’s as if the student is a contestant on Chopped, the reality TV show where professional chefs are given mystery baskets of oddball ingredients and expected to produce delicious and creative dishes from them. Except that for the students, the basket of oddball ingredients is themselves—the mishmash of talents and experiences that makes up who they are and doesn’t seem to fit into any of the available slots for choosing a major.

That’s where the CJY comes into the picture. That’s where Center Director Ned Laff, Academic Advisor Lakia Colquitt, and the student peer advisors go to work. Like helpful (and slightly argumentative) master chefs, they ask the right questions and suggest the right follow-ups and (as Laff likes to say), click, the pieces fall into place. The jumble of ingredients becomes a recipe; direction and a sense of purpose are found. It isn’t a conventional approach, but it gets results.

The goal of the CJY is to assist students in making informed choices about majors and careers. Students entering their junior year, whether from GSU, one of the 17 partner community colleges, or any other college or university, will meet in specially designed cornerstone courses in each major.

The Title III federal grant that funds CJY is helping to strengthen GSU’s student services and academic support. “The CJY will improve the transition of native and transfer students into the junior year and the major, increase the retention of all students, especially underrepresented students, and improve rates of students’ successful attainment of the baccalaureate degree,” said GSU’s Provost and VP for Academic Affairs Deborah Bordelon.

Laff has devoted his career to re-conceptualizing pathways to degrees, previously at other schools and at GSU since 2016. What stands out about his approach is that it’s student-centered and stresses listening and observing. He asks a whole lot of questions, helping students to drill down and discover their untapped potential.

Sandra Chavez was a somewhat reluctant Psychology major when Laff met her. Like many students, she wasn’t sure which way to go. She had difficulty describing her interests. Hesitantly she said, “I really like horses. I wish there was some way to combine that with psychology.” Welcome to the CJY; welcome to the idea of equine-assisted therapy. Click!

Chavez is now a senior and plans to finish her Master’s in Psychology at GSU, “combining my passion for horses and people by becoming an equine-assisted psychotherapist.” She is also a Peer Success Coach in the CJY. She helps other students find the same kind of solution that she did.

We don’t focus on what a computer says or what a catalog says, we really get to know the individual, the person—what their dreams were, where that dream got lost along the way, why it got lost—how we’re going to get them to where they always wanted to be.
Sandra Chavez, Peer Success Coach, Center for the Junior Year

Ariel Donegan also chose to give back as a CJY peer advisor at GSU. Becoming a peer advisor takes three days of training and gives the advisors a free space to talk about things that went unvoiced previously. It gives them a chance to provide that same kind of free space to the students they advise.

The CJY just finished its first semester. Laff, Colquitt, and the student staff are eager to work with more students, and there’s no barrier to getting assistance from the CJY—all students, even those in graduate programs, are eligible. Click!