Succeeding at college: St. Thomas’ REAL program


In the banquet hall at the University of St. Thomas in August, Courtney Brewster stood among tables set for dinner and directed 16 incoming freshmen as they set up slideshows, practiced dance routines and played the piano piece they would perform at their closing celebration that evening.

Brewster, the director of the Reaching Excellence in Academics and Leadership (REAL) Program at St. Thomas, joked with them as they prepared. The REAL program, a five-week orientation program targeted at minority and immigrant students, aims to help new freshmen succeed in college by coming early to learn, bond and connect.

During July and August, the 16 students honed their math and writing skills in classes, learned about campus resources and connected with each other. Many colleges have similar programs to bolster incoming freshmen who face special challenges, such as being immigrants, first-generation college students and students of color coming into predominantly white institutions.

Tyanna Dickerson, a graduate of South High School in Minneapolis and the first in her family to attend college, wanted to attend St. Thomas but felt nervous about the demands of college. She’s grateful for the REAL program’s help.

“This program benefited me in many ways because I didn’t go in to the fall unprepared or nervous. I think that it gave me a lot of confidence. I made some good friends before I even got started,” she said.

The St. Thomas Multicultural Student Services office began operating the REAL Program under its current name 13 years ago. Brewster said the program chooses students to maximize diversity within the group.

Right: REAL students Leilani Kaaj and Zack Shapiro perform a dance they learned while at an outing to the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

A typical week in the summer program included informational visits from professors, English and math classes, recreational outings and REAL Deal classes, which focus on diversity and related issues.

Tips for making the grade in college

  1. Manage your time as best as possible. “I’m a very visual person, so for me a planner works really well.”
  2. It’s really about communicating. Tell your boss and your teachers ahead what you can and can’t do. Find ways to work around conflicts.
  3. Organize your priorities. Although an on-campus job would be easier, Tyanna continues to work six hours a week, the minimum required, at a downtown hospital. She likes the research work and “It looks good on my resume.”
  4. Spend time with old friends and family. That will help you feel like you have some outside support.

— Tyanna Dickerson, freshman, University of St. Thomas

“We talked about multiculturalism and we look at it from systems of power and also oppression,” Brewster explained. “We work with our students to understand where they fit within the global society and how they can dismantle the institutions that continue to disadvantage some groups.”

Dickerson believed the REAL Deal class helped her see diversity differently.

“It taught me to be open to different people. The REAL Deal class went deep into discussion about the many meanings of diversity. It really helped me be open to meeting new people and not being closed off from people you think you might not hang out with,” she said.

The program also gave her some practical skills, such as using a planner to keep track of work shifts, classroom assignments and other responsibilities. “If you’re not prepared for all the things coming at you, it can be overwhelming,” she said.

During the summer, students also participate in a case study competition, which helps them prepare for situations they could face in college. Each group was presented with a conflict — trust issues, eating disorders, relationship violence and hate shown toward minority groups. The groups identified how they would respond, including the campus resources they could use to help.

During the five weeks on campus, the students also had weekly outings to places like Valley Fair and Feed My Starving Children, where they packaged meals to send to hungry people around the world.

“I liked being on my own because it put a lot of pressure on me time management-wise. You can choose to do your homework or you can choose to slack off, but it’s up to you. It really prepared me for this semester,” freshman Chad Luangrath said.

Brewster believes this program encourages students to consider how they can work together despite differences.

“With the increasing amount of diversity that is happening here at St. Thomas and at companies and the global society, it’s about all of us and how we all work together. The common good is all of us working together to make things better not only for us but for those who come after us,” she said.