When Amaya Sessom found herself in an academic struggle during her freshman year, the easiest path was to ignore the gravity of the situation and quit. But instead of quitting, I asked for help.
A pair of programs created here at Illinois State University – Project Success and Project Rebound – are designed to support students in facing what they may see as the end of their academic world. Instead of an end, facing the problem, no matter the cause, can mean a new beginning.
Michelle Shulin ’03 is a college major at Illinois State University where she oversees both programs. Shulin, who has been at the university for 24 years, gets a lot of personal satisfaction from helping students and always tries to establish a personal connection. She also loves to see her students finish on a high note.
“Every year I try to get involved as a volunteer to start the program so I can see them along the way,” she said.
Shulin said Project Success and Project Recovery are intended to be proactive programs designed to assist students during the probationary semester.
“We make sure that students are aware of the various resources the university offers, have peer support, be the right person to ask questions along with their academic advisor, and help them be accountable,” said Shulin.
The success of the project is for first-time test students. Requirements, according to Scholin, include attending a seminar at the beginning of the semester and one in the middle of the semester; a meeting with their academic advisor; And attending the Julia N. Visor Academic Center workshop.
Project Rebound is designed for students who have been expelled and are now back. Based on what has been learned in Project Success, all students who have been returned to university must participate in Project Rebound. Requirements include attending orientation; Attend small group sessions every two weeks with a facilitator and other students; complete a brief activity on ReggieNet; a meeting with their academic advisor; Attend a one-on-one session with the facilitator.
Project success and Project Rebound were the ideas of Amy Roser ’95, MS ’02, Program Coordinator at University College. Roser wanted to create a safety net to support students who might be feeling lonely, fearful, and doubtful about their future.
“Students working towards academic recovery face many challenges,” Roser said. “My hope is that students, through Project Success and Project Rebound, see that others believe in them and, most importantly, never lose sight of their belief in themselves.”
Sissum, a first-generation college student, is a good example of how to meet this daunting challenge.
“Amaya was in the project success in the spring of 2020 and then the recovery project in the fall of 2020,” said Shulin. “I have completed both successfully, and have been thriving ever since.”
Sissum arrived in Illinois from Chicago in 2019 as a freshman. She had a few challenges at home, some of which were financial, and she was on her own for the first time.
“There was a lot of paperwork to be completed for financial assistance, and in terms of family issues, it all became a huge distraction,” Sessum said. “And then spring came, and we started the internet. That added to the challenge.”
Sisom said it was the weekly Zoom meetings with Shulen that allowed her to stay in school. She credits Shulen and those online meetings with providing the encouragement she needed since he wasn’t home.
“Michelle invests in her students and really listens to them,” Sisom said. “She was able to get me to move on mentally and emotionally. She also helped me find a counselor through student advising services. It was really hard on my mental health. Michelle was so perfect.”
Sissum is currently a sophomore majoring in Accounting, but is on her way to transferring to her freshman year in the spring. Not only does she set a good role model for other Illinois students, but she also shows her younger siblings on the road.
“I am the eldest of all 13, and of all the girls, and I would encourage them all to go to university,” Sisom said.
Her advice to anyone in an academically similar situation is to reach out and take advantage of all the opportunities that the university offers.
“These could be your professors, your advisor, or your employees,” she said. “Everyone you meet will help you. ISU provides a lot of resources. You may feel more comfortable with your financial aid counselor; well, they will help you connect with people who can help you.”
Like most people, Sissum still has things in her life to test, but now she has more experience – thanks in part to the success of Project and Project Rebound – that should help her in the future. She said she feels better prepared to handle and manage the things that she might have derailed in the past. Shulin’s contact continued well after Sisom secured a better position both academically and emotionally.
“I’m still in contact with Michelle,” Sissum said. “She encourages me to be a mentor through the University College’s Julia N. Visor Academic Center, so I will be working on doing so next year during the summer or fall. I will also be a TA for my accounting class during the spring.”
While Shulen connected Sisom with the resources that helped her achieve success, she said the transformation was due to Sisom’s hard work. The two still meet every two weeks during the semester to make sure Sisom is doing well.
“Amaya was one of the few students who accepted my offer to meet frequently,” Shulin said. “I am very proud of her and glad to have been a part of her academic journey at ISU.”
For Sessom, the experience brought immediate and lasting profits.
“I think it made me more confident,” she said. Let me know: You can do this. “