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IN MY OPINION

Offering students a second chance through UBC’s transitional bursary

By JULIE FORAN, JOANNA LUDLOW, MANDY THIESSEN AND ERICA TRIGGS | October 18, 2016

In our work as university advisors within the University of British Columbia’s enrolment services unit, we often feel as though we are coaching students through increasingly competitive requirements. The standards to get into university, make it through midterms, or apply to the program a student desires can seem unforgiving. Our students are making what seem to be some of the biggest decisions of their lives – and potentially making some of the biggest mistakes. How then do universities maintain high standards of excellence while acknowledging the existence of youthful indiscretion?

Each year at the University of British Columbia, both domestic and international students are identified who have failed to meet the requirements set out to retain their major renewable scholarships, which are often between $3,000 and $15,000 a year. While we continue to uphold high academic standards for students, the impact of losing this funding can be significant. In addition to one-on-one support offered by their assigned financial advisor, we at enrolment services have created another support – namely, a transition bursary. This approach recognizes that a single bad year may unfairly jeopardize a student’s opportunity to continue their degree, as the funding they initially worked so hard to achieve has been taken away.

In order to receive a transitional bursary (which would be in the same amount as their original award), students are required to meet with advisors and develop a new plan. We take into account a variety of factors, including their extenuating circumstances, their plan to improve, and goals for the future. If granted, students are funded for an academic year; if they have met their scholarship requirements by the end of that session, their original scholarship is reinstated.

Undergrad award requirements

To put it in context, undergraduate recipients of our academic, merit-based awards at UBC are required to maintain at least a 75 percent average in their best 27 credits over an average full-time course load between September and April; and, they not permitted to fail any courses. Even for a strong student, meeting these regulations can be arduous. There is little room for error for a first-year student struggling with a significantly different course load or environment than in high school, or a second-year student who took a course outside of their faculty and was more challenged than anticipated, resulting in a failed grade.

Domestic students in particular often report that the reason they failed to meet renewal criteria was because they were too involved in campus life and let their grades slide slightly as a result. A. W. Astin’s theory of involvement would affirm such behavior contributes to a student’s learning and personal development; however, prior to the creation of the transitional bursary, this learning and development could equate to a significant financial loss for the student. To encourage students to have a full spectrum of learning experiences, the transitional bursary can provide support at a time when the student is at their most vulnerable. We can coach our highly involved students to ensure academics remain a priority for their bursary year with the goal of regaining their award the subsequent year. For some students, the loss of their scholarship could require them to work more hours, taking more time away from their studies and potentially decreasing their chances of boosting their grades – again, an issue the transitional bursary can address.

International student award requirements

Our international students receive similar merit-based awards but also face the unique challenge of adapting to a new location and culture. They, too, are eligible for the transition bursary. When surveyed as to why they believe they were able to regain their award, students highlighted better use of time management and academic support services like peer tutoring, better understanding of course material and taking courses that were more in line with the student’s academic goals. These responses are not surprising, especially when considering Nancy K. Schlossberg’s transition theory, which suggests the resources students draw on in the midst of transition dictate their ability to successfully cope. Additionally, these results highlight that perhaps it takes a full academic year for international students to find their footing and perform well academically while investing in campus life.

The transitional bursary takes a holistic look at students and their journey through university, recognizing that they will make mistakes along the way. Rather than letting the impact of a mistake or the university transition process jeopardize their degree, this gives students a second chance to fulfill the goal they had when they first came to university. Though we are still in the beginning stages of utilizing transitional bursaries, over half of the students who received one have been able to regain their original award. While the transitional bursary is a new approach in supporting students through enrolment services, its initial success has left us thinking about other opportunities universities and higher educational institutions may have to incorporate second chances into policy and practice.

Julie Foran is an enrolment services professional and awards manager for international entrance awards at the University of British Columbia; Joanna Ludlow is an enrolment services professional and awards manager for Aboriginal awards at the UBC; Mandy Thiessen is a graduate student in the counselling psychology program and former awards manager for Loran Scholarships at UBC; and Erica Triggs is a student recruiter-advisor and former awards manager for merit-based entrance awards at UBC.

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  1. Aurelia Kinslow, PhD Candidate, Curriculum & Pedagogy, UBC / October 21, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    This is great news! The only caution I have is the risk of stigmatizing students by framing their drop in grades as stemming from “mistakes”. A variety of reasons affect students that are out of their control entirely such as when there are serious illnesses affecting relatives, or when some major life event affects the student directly. A number of factors may affect students’ ability to focus that constitute transitions but for which the student cannot and should not be blamed. Rather than thinking of the opportunity the bursary presents as a “second chance” after students make mistakes, perhaps it could be presented as the university’s commitment to students we continue to believe in despite the complex challenges life throws at them.

    • Joanna Ludlow / November 9, 2016 at 3:16 pm

      Hi Aurelia,

      Thanks for your comment and we certainly appreciate your concern. You point out an interesting balance between normalizing issues that students might face while also encouraging them to do the best they can.

      Fortunately we have an option for students to appeal their award requirements in times of extenuating circumstances, two examples of which you point out of illness in the family or major life events that affect the student. Indeed if students are not meeting their award requirements we would invite them in for a meeting and would determine if their circumstances could result in an appeal or in the transitional bursary. Since the bursary can only be used once over the course of a student’s degree we would explore all options of an appeal as students can appeal more than once as necessary throughout their degree.

      We also recognize that the word “mistake” could be unfairly applied to a situation that was completely out of the student’s control. For this reason we would always engage in a meaningful conversation with the student directly before we make any decisions on the next steps.

      Thanks again for bringing this to our intention, we’ll be sure to provide more clarity around the options for students in the future.

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