The Bulldog Experience

Avid Living/Learning Initiative Aims for Success
Left: Meg Clark Johnson, assistant director of residential education, works with Rayna Pharr and Noah Tittle during the Bulldog Experience class.

Remember your first year at college? You probably felt excited, hopeful and thrilled at having freedom. Odds are you were also feeling insecure, uncertain about what to do and how to fit in. Now imagine what that first year feels like for first-generation college students, many of whom have no idea what to expect and no one to help them find out.

Succeeding in the first year is critical to staying in school and graduating, and that’s the focus for UNC Asheville’s AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) for Higher Education initiative. This national program helps first-generation college students—some from low-income families and other underrepresented groups—improve their odds of success in college.

In the pilot year of the AVID for Higher Education program at UNC Asheville, 101 students were accepted into the program. Deaver Traywick, director of the University Writing Center and Peer Tutoring Program, is the campus liaison to AVID for Higher Education, working with AVID and many departments on campus.“I appreciate living in an all-freshman hall. Having all of us together builds community, and our hall is really close after just a few weeks.” —AVID student Katie Ritchie

“AVID for Higher Education is both a program and a philosophy,” he said. “There are several components to the program, including a first-year seminar that uses active learning strategies and AVID’s emphasis on writing, inquiry-based learning, collaboration, organization and reading (WICOR).”

All AVID students are participating in an additional course called the Bulldog Experience, which covers the transition to college, leadership, health and wellness, careers and academic integrity. To help the students bond and better adjust to college life, they all reside in a Living Learning Community in Founders Hall. They also receive tutoring and advising that provides extra support.

“I appreciate living in an all-freshman hall,” said AVID student Katie Ritchie. “Having all of us together builds community, and our hall is really close after just a few weeks.”

“I appreciate living in an all-freshman hall. Having all of us together builds community, and our hall is really close after just a few weeks.” —AVID student Katie Ritchie

“National research shows that students who participate in living learning communities have better grades, stronger connections to their institutions, and higher rates of retention,” said Melanie Fox, associate dean of students. “With students from underrepresented populations, and those who are first-generation college students, creating these connections can be the difference that causes the student to succeed at a higher level.”

The program builds on UNC Asheville’s nationally respected 15-year track
record of tutoring Asheville City Schools’ middle- and high-school AVID students to prepare them for college.
In 2014, UNC Asheville became the first four-year university in North Carolina to join the AVID for Higher Education initiative.

The university dedicated substantial resources to program training for faculty and staff when they started the AVID process two years ago. Dozens of faculty and staff members also committed to helping with the program, many drawing from their own experience as first-generation college students. 

External support includes a grant from the Dell Foundation through the AVID for Higher Education program, one of only 10 awarded in the United States. The funding supports training at AVID conferences and on campus for faculty and staff, as well as membership in the AVID national organization.

The Sisters of Mercy of North Carolina Foundation also funds part of the program. The foundation is providing additional resources for training, up-fitting a collaborative learning center for AVID students, and offering funding for students to conduct undergraduate research and participate in other academic activities.

“We place a high importance on student academic success for underrepresented populations. UNC Asheville’s collaboration with the AVID for Higher Education program, a program that equips largely first-generation college students with skill sets to break the cycle of generational poverty, is a wonderful fit for the mission of the foundation,” said Michelle Maidt, foundation president. 

The goal for AVID’s first year is to help students become fully immersed in the campus community. That integration will help them stay in school and achieve higher GPAs. 

“We are committed to all students enrolled at UNC Asheville,” said Traywick, “but we’re making a particular effort to better serve the needs of students from underrepresented groups on campus. We are dedicated to their success and to seeing them graduate.”