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Jennifer Wood: Staff

MESA Engineering
Degree Program: 
MESA Academic Counselor
Undergraduate Institution: 
UC Davis (Psychology)
Graduate Institution: 
Sacramento State (Counseling)

My name is Jennifer Wood and I’m the academic counselor for the MESA Academic Program at the Baskin School of Engineering:

Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA) engineering program students are typically first generation students or students at an economic disadvantage who are coming from low-resource school districts or re-entry students or those who don’t have a background in STEM or are from backgrounds underrepresented in engineering.

Students come in with any number of strengths but they also come in with any number of weaknesses or holes in their learning process. So there are many ways I support these students: I coordinate certain services such as a lending library, and I work very closely with our Learning Support office for tutoring, and work with students one-on-one. Students come to me for time management issues, for study skills help. Making that transition from high school or community college to university can be really rough and so I help demystify that process for them, and help them brainstorm techniques for ways they can succeed at UC Santa Cruz.

I’m also able to help with the more tricky issues. Many students are worried about doing things they’ve never done before such as going to office hours or approaching faculty or asking what they need from financial aid or even knowing what office to go to on campus. So I can help them figure that out and suggest ways to help them prepare for those meetings so they don’t feel quite so lost once they get there.

Also, because I’ve been working in higher ed for thirteen years, I’m able to identify challenges before they become big problems. I can help a student know when it’s time to access other resources like counseling services or the disability resource center.

What are some of the common problems you see?

Some of the most common problems are making that transition to the campus, either coming from high school or a community college. I see many students struggle during their first quarter -- fall quarter can be a really intense one, but I also see students who really slay it in fall, and then they really struggle in winter and wonder what’s wrong. So that’s a big one.

A lot of our students also struggle with what’s known as imposter syndrome. That’s when a student feels out of place and feels as though someone is going to discover that they don’t belong here at UCSC and kick them out.

I spend a lot of time encouraging and acknowledging their natural brilliance and their right to be here. That’s something I really love to do for our students. It’s important, particularly for engineers, for those in what we call the hard sciences there’s not a lot of warm fuzzies floating around, not a lot of the human touch and as humans we are starved for that.

When you’ve been told all your life that you can’t do something and all of a sudden here’s someone telling you that you can and you have the ability to--I think that really makes a difference for students.

When should a student seek help?

At all stages! I think it’s easier to practice the ability to ask for help in smaller situations, so in the bigger ones it doesn’t feel so weird to ask.

I think it’s good to start with something like - “How do I plan my schedule?” That’s an easy one, because as course as a freshman we wouldn’t expect you to know how to do that, so I invite my students in for support and encouragement creating their schedules, so that when they do hit the rough spots they’ll know who to ask and feel comfortable asking. It’s so much easier for someone who’s been seeing me all along to come by and get help when something seems to go wrong.

I like my students to think of me as a first point of contact for help. Of course there are things I can’t do -- I am not an academic advisor, so for questions like that I’ll send people downstairs, and even though I do have a background in counseling (my masters was in counseling, and my BA was in psychology), I’m not a therapist, so I’ll refer people to CAPS; likewise I’m not faculty, faculty has the ability to make decisions or recommendations that I really can’t make, so it’s not uncommon for me to make referrals to those other folks on campus.

Tell us about presenting at the Learning Support Conference!

This past June, as a result of working with our Learning Support Services office on campus (the office that coordinates tutoring and supplemental instruction on campus) one of their directors invited me to attend a learning support conference that was happening at Sacramento State. My director and I thought it was a great idea and we approached my colleague Nick DeLillo about possibly presenting, and he was game.

We presented in June on about how we’ve combined our services to meet the needs of both the MESA Engineering students and the UC LEADS scholars which is another program supporting students underrepresented in STEM programs. So we presented on how we combined our resources. What we did was use the MESA space to support the LSS support tutors for sessions that are only for MEP students. Their students needed space, my students needed tutors and I had the space, so two and two together made this really great collaboration. More of my students are being exposed to LSS and are more likely to go, and also we have more guaranteed full sessions. So we went and presented, and it worked out really well.

What advice do you have for incoming frosh?

There are layers. It’s really important that you understand that you do belong here. Definitely absolutely belong here, the university would not have admitted you if they didn’t think you belonged. So internalize that!

I would also really recommend that you find your group. For MESA students, that’s an easy one, there’s a built-in community, but for others who aren’t eligible for MESA, really go out and find your group.

From the academic side, get started studying right away; and understand that all of your work will be taking place outside of the classroom and that’s a big change from high school --in a high school your work is happening in the school, in college you’re doing it outside of class, so you really need to plan to spend hours outside of class working.

For transfers it’s the same. Just remember that you’re not a robot (even if you’re building one!) There will be rough spots.

Any last thoughts?

One thing I always like to remind students of is that you are not your major. Many students come to college and they feel like if I don’t get this major it’s going to screw up all of my opportunities. No! You’re going to be fine. Your major is just directing your core of study, and, yes, there are going to be some jobs that say we are specifically interested in computer science majors, but there are so many other opportunities just based on your skill set, so focus on what you’re learning, focus on developing some skills, maybe find a niche that’s really different, look beyond Big Tech, yeah Google and Apple would be good places to work, but if you’re interested in other things, focus on those as well, such as archeology or ecology or social justice, because these areas that could really use good computer scientists or data scientists and I guarantee you that not many people are looking at those opportunities.

Most engineering students are looking at Big Tech. Focus on what you’re interested in. Find a place for yourself.