Leadership of first-year program recognized for outstanding work

Leadership of first-year program recognized for outstanding work

T ransitioning from high school to college can be tough. Everything about life changes—from where you live to who you live with, what you eat and how you spend your time.  

To help make that transition a bit smoother, Georgia College created dedicated programming, courses and support through the Office of First-Year Experience.

Dr. Erin Weston
Dr. Erin Weston
At the helm as director since its inception in 2019 is Dr. Erin Weston. She was recently recognized by the National Resource Center and Cengage as one of 10 Outstanding First-Year Student Advocates. She received the award at the 41st Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience in Orlando in February. 

“It was very surprising,” Weston said. “It’s sometimes hard to see the impact of what you're doing. To be recognized, especially on a national level, for a lot of the changes that we've made these last couple of years, it was exciting.”

The award recognizes and rewards individuals across the nation who are advocates involved in high-impact practices for first-year student success.

“The rich tradition of this award includes more than three decades of recognizing the outstanding work that takes place making immeasurable impact on the lives of first-year students,” said Jennifer Keup, executive director of the National Resource Center, in a press release. “It’s an absolute honor to add ten more names to the list of esteemed colleagues who have previously received this honor.”

 At Georgia College, various components of the first-year experience have been in place for years. When the office was created, it brought all the pieces under one umbrella, allowing for more collaboration and the expansion of programming.

Students in a freshman seminar class.
Students in a freshman seminar class.

“We do have some pieces of our first-year experience that are unique to us, particularly in the state of Georgia,” said Weston. “We have the advantage that all of our students are living on campus, so we have this co-curricular learning environment where we can partner with Student Life to make sure there are lessons and experiences that our students are taught that may not fit within the classroom.”

The summer reading program for incoming students, called GC Reads, is also unique. Instead of students reading a common book, at Georgia College students choose from a list of essays and take part in micro-seminar sessions where they discuss the essay with faculty and fellow students. The university is one of the few in the nation to do this.

 “We really reflected on what the purpose of that experience was, and it was to help students feel what a classroom experience is going to be like, take some of the stress out of that first week of class and let them connect with a faculty member,” Weston said.  


“When we changed it to an essay, the students had some control of their topic, and it created an environment in the classroom where faculty could really engage the students rather than students may be feeling overwhelmed by having to have read or comprehend the whole book,” she said.

The feedback on GC Reads has been overwhelmingly positive. That helped lay the groundwork for more innovation in the first-year programming.  

First-year guides were recently introduced into the seminar course. These upperclassmen serve as peer resources and mentors to help in the transition to college.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from students about the impact their first-year guides have had in making them more comfortable in the classroom,” said Weston. “We survey all the students and just ask ‘Would you be comfortable reaching out to your first-year guide for help? Have you contacted your first-year guide?’ The responses to that have been highly positive.” 

Georgia College also offers a first-year seminar one-credit-hour college transition course. 

“It's taught by either a faculty member within their department or an academic advisor and paired with that person is a first-year guide,” Weston said. “From what I can tell, there aren’t any other institutions that have both a three-credit-hour course all their first-year students take like our GC1Y and the one-credit-hour course for all first-year students like our seminar.”

With the primary goal of connecting new students with resources on campus, the entire first-year experience is both intentional and always developing.  

Photo from the Welcome Party for new first-year students.
Photo from the Welcome Party for new first-year students.

“We are trying to better tailor the first-year guide program to provide more major-based support for students to match up students with mentors within their program,” Weston said.  

They’re also looking to build connections for first-year students with faculty in their major. Typically, during the first two years of college students primarily take core classes. Weston hopes to encourage students to get involved with things like student organizations or research in their major earlier.  

“We've been exploring different opportunities for students to feel like they're involved in their major early on communicating different opportunities they have,” she said. “We are trying to let them know that maybe some of those experiences they assume are just for upperclassmen—like undergraduate research— they can do as a first-year student and continue throughout their four years.”

Weston’s recognition with this national award shows her work and innovation are getting noticed.

“I think what’s nice about it is that it shows that some of the risks and some of the new ideas that we've tried are being recognized by our national organization as being good practice,” Weston said.  

For more information about Georgia College’s First-Year Experience Programs, visit https://www.gcsu.edu/first-year-experience.

Dr. Erin Weston with her award.
Dr. Erin Weston with her award.