Higher Ed

NJIT Program Helps Asians, Pacific Islanders Acclimate to College

With $1.94 million in federal funding, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is launching a program that will help Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander students navigate the academic, social and emotional challenges of transitioning into college.

The initiative, known as Improving AANAPI Student Outcomes Through Opportunities for Engagement, or ISOTOPE, begins next summer with academic and experiential orientation for 175 first-year AANAPI students.

ISOTOPE comes following NJIT becoming an AANAPI-serving institution and with 21% of the university’s first-year class being Asian American or Native American Pacific Islander. The threshold for that federal distinction is 10%.

The EOP model

The program is modeled after NJIT’s long-standing Educational Opportunity Program, which supports scholars with limited financial means. Collectively, ISOTOPE, EOP and pre-college primers like the Math Success Initiative, Forensic Science Initiative and STEM Boot Camp create pathways for underrepresented minorities to thrive at NJIT. These programs are designed to raise retention and graduation rates through a multifaceted support system.

An analysis of AANAPI students at NJIT indicated that many struggled with math requirements and, as a result, took longer to graduate. Coupled with those struggles were feelings of not belonging, and, for some Asian Americans, the sting of “imposter syndrome” in comparison to more successful peers. What’s more, many did not qualify for existing programs like EOP.

That demonstrated need and NJIT’s track record of surrounding students with a web of support services were key to securing the funding from the U.S. Department of Education, according to Ashish Borgaonkar, co-project director and summer experiential learning coordinator of ISOTOPE and an assistant professor of engineering.

“We pitched the idea that we have long-standing, extremely successful programs that are currently not available to this target population,” Borgaonkar said. “In other words, we know how to do this; we just don’t have funds to separately do this for that population. That was our central message.”

The money will be allocated across five years, with NJIT needing to show quantitative and qualitative progress each year. By year five, ISOTOPE will have directly helped approximately 875 students as they become part of the full AANAPI community of 2,000 students at NJIT.

A holistic approach

ISOTOPE will help AANAPI students in four key ways:

Preparation — A five-week summer orientation will focus on developing skills in math and experiential learning.

Belonging — A living-learning community will feature faculty in residence, peer mentors and summer group projects in NJIT’s Makerspace.

Accessibility — Cost will not be a barrier, as the grant will help pay for instructional materials, supplies, food and housing for the summer orientation.

Support — Participants will have dedicated advisors and access to psychological counselors.

“It’s a holistic approach to a support network for students,” explained Project Director Laurent Simon, a vice provost for undergraduate studies who focuses on student outcomes. “We’ll not only look at advising but also, how are they doing? And we’ll track them, mentor them and identify where they are not successful, and provide them with support on the spot.”

At the direction of NJIT President Teik C. Lim, the university is taking a collaborative approach to ISOTOPE, with Highlanders from eight departments managing and supporting the initiative.

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