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 what’s happening locally to the wider world. Students in a marketing course, for example, are working for a company that promotes the city’s “Hire. Buy. Live. Newark” initiative, and an art course delves into the lives of Portuguese immigrants. “For the first time these students are learning about themselves and about that corner where they come from,” said Engelbert Santana, the assistant dean of advisement.
In a bookshelf’s-worth of studies, psychologists have shown that imbuing undergraduates with a sense of belonging — the realization that they can reach out to their peers and their professors when they need help or advice — helps them cope with the predictable setbacks of college life. The same holds true for initiatives that develop what’s 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 “multiple check-ins” keep them from going under. They can turn to a peer mentor, who understands, firsthand, what they’re 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.
“The adviser is there to identify red flags — whether it’s finances, academics or personal,” Mr. Santana told me. “That means helping a student with a full-time job who’s majoring in biology deal with anxiety or helping a student get out of a toxic relationship.” Taja-Nia Henderson, a Rutgers law professor, believes that “if we hadn’t been there, the students wouldn’t have made it. They keep telling me: ‘I don’t have anyone else to talk to about this.’”
“The amount we get from everyone — peers, faculty, administration, faculty — is mind-blowing,” said Adebimbe Elegbeleye, a student from Nigeria. “The 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 what’s going on, they say, ‘Wow, you know this dean? You have what support?’”