When it comes to post-baccalaureate education, some students may never consider graduate school or professional degree programs, such as law or medicine. Others may not know how to pursue the myriad steps in the process of getting there.
They would not, if it were not for the encouragement of mentors who help students see that they have the potential for advancement far beyond what they had let themselves dream.
The Center for the Advancement of Students and Alumni, or the CASA, is Georgia State’s initiative to encourage and support promising undergraduate students, especially from backgrounds that remain underrepresented in professional positions, to consider and prepare for education beyond the bachelor’s degree.
Since its launch in 2018, the CASA has assisted thousands of students from across Georgia State’s large and diverse student population with learning both the logistics of applying to graduate school, and the soft skills required to move forward.
“We have great success stories already among students in our programs,” said Dr. Kyle Frantz, Director of the CASA. “We’re really starting to see those students move on into advanced degree programs.”
For Sam Pittman, a Georgia State senior who will attend Columbia Law School this fall, the CASA and its faculty and staff helped to guide him toward his goal –faculty mentors provided encouragement and graduate assistants taught the ins and outs of how to apply for law school, write for applications, and more.
“I’m about to go to an Ivy League law school and I never would’ve thought I’d get there,” he said. “The CASA is giving the chance to step up in society.”
Pittman took advantage of one of the three tracks the CASA offers students – pre-law. Two other tracks, pre-PhD and pre-med, are also offered.
In all tracks, the center offers workshops, mentorship, and guidance in how to pursue graduate and professional education, including soft skills and the logistical and financial aspects of pursuing post-baccalaureate education.
The CASA also provides connections to research opportunities for undergraduates, which provides an opportunity to explore what doing real research experience is like and helps to build applications to graduate programs.
A student does not need to be a graduating senior to be a part of the CASA’s activities.
Nor does the student need to be based on the downtown Atlanta campus. Students at Georgia State’s two-year Perimeter College campuses have taken advantage of the services and support provided by the center, including the Perimeter Research Assistantship Program.
Getting Down to the Essentials: 25 to Thrive
One of the initiatives at the heart of the CASA is 25 to Thrive – the 25 things students need to know and do to prepare, apply for, and pursue graduate and professional education.
They break down into five categories: academic preparation; sharpening writing skills; preparing for the standardized tests needed to enter graduate and professional programs; preparation for research; and preparing applications for graduate and professional programs.
Testing and applying for programs can cause trepidation among some students. Justice Ejike, a Georgia State alum who has been admitted to a Ph.D. program at the university, found that the 25 to Thrive program’s assistance helped him to realize that admissions to graduate programs aren’t strictly about test scores – especially this past academic year, as the COVID-19 pandemic led to the waiving of test scores in graduate admissions.
“One of the things was to work on a goal statement, and that goal statement became a huge component of my application,” he said. “The [programs] had to have a different indicator of how successful you would be in the program if you were admitted.”
Mentorship and Guidance
For students who are participating and have successfully participated in the CASA’s activities, they stress the importance of the mentorship and guidance provided by faculty associates and staff of the center.
Take for example Aman Bassi, a sophomore in computer science at Georgia State and winner of the university’s Royal Flame Award. The feeling of support has been key as he sets his eyes on graduate education in decision/data science.
Just knowing that people are in your corner and can help guide you to the right resources and knowledge has been a big boost, he said.
“It’s just nice to know that there are so many people backing you,” Bassi said. “It’s just such a comfortable place to be in, because even if you don’t need an exact service that they provide, they can help you get to wherever you need to go. They help build skill sets and have the connections to help you go anywhere that you need to go.”
Why Diversification in Graduate Programs is Essential
Ultimately, the CASA is part of Georgia State’s efforts to expand student success innovation beyond its nationally recognized models at the undergraduate level, and to develop a pathway for more students from underrepresented backgrounds pursue the graduate and professional education required to take leading roles in higher education and in the professional world.
The latter is even more profound in 2021 as the country in general – and academia in particular – grapple with long-standing issues of racial inequality, justice, equity and representation. While the professoriate at large in the U.S. has become more diverse in some respects, it has not been uniform and not in the same proportions as the demographic shifts taking place in the country.
And because progression in an academic career to a leadership position takes years, diversification of academic leadership has not kept pace.
Without a Ph.D. or other terminal degree (in some fields, for example, it is a Juris Doctor, or law, degree), it is difficult to progress in the ranks, which means there are fewer department chairs, deans, provosts and college and university presidents who reflect the country’s increasing diversity.
And beyond academia, the diversification of legal and medical professions – including diversity among judges, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, doctors, and medical decision and policy makers on a national scale – is dependent on encouraging promising students from all backgrounds to consider continuing their education after a bachelor’s degree.
It’s not an easy problem to tackle – nor a quick one. But the CASA is a critical part of Georgia State’s efforts to play a part in needed innovative, systemic change.
Applying Georgia State's Innovative Spirit for Student Success to the Graduate Level
Georgia State has long had a reputation as a national leader in undergraduate student success, proving that students from all backgrounds can succeed. A component of this model has been the use of predictive analytics to help keep students on track towards their undergraduate degree.
By using a data-driven approach, the university learned of the early warning signs that a student might not graduate. Through this, the university uncovered the many interrelated factors involved in a student not completing their bachelor’s degree and adopted countermeasures ranging from microgrants to meta-majors.
The CASA is taking a page on this concept and applying it in a different way: investigating how data can be used to identify promising students with high potential to pursue doctoral or first-professional degrees – combined with the human insights provided by a nomination platform for faculty and instructors of record.
“We ask faculty members or other course instructors who might have interacted with those students if they agree with the predictive analytics on a student-by-student basis, and whether they have suggestions for other students whose records might not suggest that they’re ready to move on, but are showing motivation and curiosity,” Dr. Frantz said.
“If the records and/or the instructor nomination suggests that a student might be ready to move toward an advanced degree, then we invite them into the CASA,” she said.
Hundreds of students have been recruited into the CASA through the nomination platform.
“We’ve got success stories of students getting into graduate school as a result of that initial ‘tap on the shoulder’ from the nomination platform – it’s really exciting to see all of this coming into fruition,” Dr. Frantz said.
Laying the Groundwork for the Long Road of Progress
It will take years of effort in higher education to build a culture of progress into graduate and professional programs, and the CASA is in it for the long haul. Dr. Frantz hopes that the groundwork by the CASA and its staff and faculty associates yields a shift in student impact and expectations – starting even before admission as an undergraduate.
“I hope that the CASA will do a fabulous job with increasing student awareness about their potential to move on to doctoral and first-professional degrees,” she said. “From the very beginning when high school students are looking at Georgia State as a potential college, they’ll see that support starts from the pre-admissions process through graduation with a bachelor’s degree and beyond.”
Beyond numbers, the CASA’s successes can also be measured on an incredibly personal, profound level – especially when it comes to students having confidence and belief in their own capability to succeed.
“I never thought that I would be going to law school, much less law school at Columbia,” Pittman said. “It’s not because I didn’t have what it takes – but it’s because I didn’t feel like I was going to be competitive or good enough. But CASA showed me, ‘you are good enough, you do have what it takes to succeed and apply to competitive programs.’”
“I did not have a perfect, gleaming LSAT score that is the average at some of these top schools,” he continued. “But what I did have was my narrative. What I did have was my story, and CASA really helped me learn how to articulate who I am, what I want to do, and who I want to be.”