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PILOTS begins its 10th year of guiding students through freshman year

By Michelle Hall


About 10 years ago, the Kansas Board of Regents was concerned with freshman retention at its six universities and wanted the institutions to look into the problem.

Kansas State University administrators began brainstorming on how to improve retention and came up with a program to create a more structured year for interested freshmen with small cluster classes, study labs with peer mentors and free tutoring, and a staff to turn to with any questions.

They referred to it as the "pilot program" and started the 1994-1995 school year with 75 students and "a prayer," said Anita Cortez, program director. As the years went by, the program grew, to a cap of 150 students, and new ideas sprouted, but the named remained. PILOTS is now beginning its 10th year at K-State. Cortez said the name stuck because they began to realize that what they do is teach students to take control of their lives and "soar to new heights."

PILOTS is described as a cooperative, year-long program for entering freshmen meant to provide structure, encourage academic discipline and critical reasoning and develop leadership potential. The program provides students with smaller sections of core classes, where "students and professors know each other by name and face," Cortez said. Students are required to spend a minimum of two hours per week in a private computer lab, where peer mentors who work closely with the students' professors can help with any questions or writing assistance.

"We help students to be successful early on in college," Cortez said. She said PILOTS students don't feel as "lost" on campus as long as their fellow freshmen students.

Over the years they have molded the program after looking at what's working and what's not, Cortez said, but have kept the basic premise of "giving students confidence in their own academic skills." PILOTS has grown to include many academic honors, including student of the month and semester designations voted on by the professors, an essay award, merit award and a math award, as well as several scholarships for the sophomore year. Most of these awards are handed out at the spring honors reception. Last winter, PILOTS debuted a talent show that included dancing, singing, martial arts and a fashion show.

Although PILOTS was not built on a diversity initiative, the program's effects of enhancing diversity have been noticed -- the program was nominated for the first annual Outstanding University Unit Award for Enhancing Diversity last spring and its director, assistants and students are often honored with awards recognizing service to minority education.

Students are typically referred to PILOTS by advisers during June enrollment. Over the years, however, as more and more students have learned about the program, they are likely to come directly to Cortez. Most PILOTS students are those worried about math or writing, or students who are timid about coming to a large university or just want a little more help, Cortez said.

Beda GarciaBeda Garcia, a Manhattan senior in family financial planning with minors in Spanish and business, pictured at left, said PILOTS helped her adjust to college life.

"Without it I may have not survived at K-State," she said. "I took advantage and most importantly benefited from all that the program had to offer." Garcia said she liked the advisers and the tutoring in PILOTS and learned study skills and time management skills.

"The tools learned in this program will last for a lifetime," Garcia said. She recommends incoming freshmen "join the program and enjoy the journey."

Cortez said PILOTS students like the peer assistance they receive through their focused study time. They also appreciate the interaction they have with their instructors, who are typically graduate students pursuing doctorates.

"These instructors are available, enthusiastic, energetic teachers," Cortez said. "They are eager to be involved with the students." PILOTS students also know all they have to do to have a question answered is contact Cortez or her staff of 12 peer assistants, three advisers and two lab staffers -- the students always have somewhere to go and someone to turn to.

The primary goal of the program is to "see freshmen turn into sophomores," Cortez said. Then, they hope to see those students graduate. Cortez said she recently heard about the first known PILOTS Ph.D., Paule Thomas, who completed her doctorate in occupational therapy last December.

And the numbers show PILOTS is meeting its goals.

In recent years, graduation rates and freshmen and sophomore retention rates at K-State have been gradually improving, said Mike Lynch, associate vice president for education and personal development. He said he believes PILOTS is one of a few factors that have influenced this change, including qualified admissions and the university experience orientation, also targeting freshmen. Among the students whom advisers identified as good candidates for PILOTS, those that choose to take advantage of PILOTS have a graduation rate twice as high as that of those who choose not to join. Lynch acknowledges there's a motivational factor there they can't control for. Last fall, four PILOTS students earned a 4.0 GPA, and five more joined them on the Dean's Honor Roll. More than half of the students finished the semester with a "C" average or higher.

Cortez doesn't look too much to the statistics though. She said her satisfaction is in seeing young people grow and mature and go on to graduate school or find that first job. She said she's privileged to get to see the growth of students throughout their time at K-State, while others on campus may just have a student in a class for one semester.

"I can give you the numbers, but it doesn't tell the whole story," she said. "For me, it's seeing a brand-new freshman, timid and uncertain, maybe secretly scared to death, and see PILOTS help them gain self-confidence in their own abilities and then guide them to a sense of purpose. Once you give them self-confidence and purpose, they find the motivation. And they're off and flying."

For more information on K-State's PILOTS program, go to http://www.k-state.edu/pilots/

Photos courtesy Anita Cortez.

Fall 2003