Seminars at the honors program range from civil rights to environmental justice. These are high-expectations classes, which demand more reading and writing than undergraduates usually encounter. They are designed to connect whatâs happening locally to the wider world. Students in a marketing course, for example, are working for a company that promotes the cityâs âHire. Buy. Live. Newarkâ initiative, and an art course delves into the lives of Portuguese immigrants. âFor the first time these students are learning about themselves and about that corner where they come from,â said Engelbert Santana, the assistant dean of advisement.
In a bookshelfâs-worth of studies, psychologists have shown that imbuing undergraduates with a sense of belonging â the realization that they can reach out to their peers and their professors when they need help or advice â helps them cope with the predictable setbacks of college life. The same holds true for initiatives that develop whatâs called a growth mind-set, the willingness to keep plugging away, instead of giving up, when a problem proves challenging. While all students can benefit from such support, minority students gain the most.
These insights underlie the emphasis on forging personal connections. When their classes seem too difficult, or personal problems overwhelm them, what one student called âmultiple check-insâ keep them from going under. They can turn to a peer mentor, who understands, firsthand, what theyâre going through; they can meet with one of the deans, who know them on a first-name basis; and they can go to their faculty adviser.
âThe adviser is there to identify red flags â whether itâs finances, academics or personal,â Mr. Santana told me. âThat means helping a student with a full-time job whoâs majoring in biology deal with anxiety or helping a student get out of a toxic relationship.â Taja-Nia Henderson, a Rutgers law professor, believes that âif we hadnât been there, the students wouldnât have made it. They keep telling me: âI donât have anyone else to talk to about this.ââ
âThe amount we get from everyone â peers, faculty, administration, faculty â is mind-blowing,â said Adebimbe Elegbeleye, a student from Nigeria. âThe nurturing environment allows us to come to our full potential. I never thought that college could be like this. When I talk to friends at other universities and tell them whatâs going on, they say, âWow, you know this dean? You have what support?ââ