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AIC Puts a Unique Focus on First-generation Students

Life Lessons

Vincent Maniaci

Vincent Maniaci says AIC has a three-pronged plan for growth that includes programs to help students become prepared to enter the workforce.

American International College President Vincent Maniaci has been studying the booklet for weeks.

It contains quick snapshots of each member of the incoming freshmen class. His goal is to commit them all to memory so he can greet every student by name when classes begin this fall. Although it’s a small measure, Maniaci believes it’s important for him to make students feel special, especially since 44% of the student population is aiming to become first-generation college graduates.

“We try to get to know our students on a personal basis, and first- generation students always struggle more than those who come from an affluent background and have parents who have gone to college,” Maniaci explained, adding that understanding a student’s history helps staff give advice that is pertinent to each individual’s situation and aspirations.

Susanne Swanker agrees, and told BusinessWest that AIC has been successful in developing a sense of community between staff and students.

“It’s uncommon to walk anywhere on campus without having people greet you,” said the school’s acting chief academic officer and dean of the School of Business, Arts and Sciences. “It doesn’t matter whether you know them or not; it’s part of a culture in which everyone is supported and encouraged to do their best.”

That culture has been carefully cultivated by Maniaci and stems from his personal experience. Indeed, his path to success differs greatly from most people in his position, and he said it has made him aware of the importance of providing students with exposure and access to college, as well as what it takes to keep them there.

“I come from a blue collar background and had no plans to attend college; it was very alien to me,” he said, adding that no one in his family had a college degree and the only reason he enrolled at City College of San Francisco, a community college, was because he and a friend wanted to continue playing football after they graduated from high school.

So he signed up for courses, but didn’t attend a single class and had no plans to do so until he injured his knee during the third game of the season. At that point, Maniaci realized that the only way he could continue interacting with other team members was to show up for class.

“I’ve always been competitive, and once I started I did well,” he said, as he outlined the rest of his educational career.

But he will never forget his first day on campus.

“Adjusting to the environment is especially difficult for students from socio-economic backgrounds where college attendance is not a given,” he said, explaining how intimidated he felt when other students began quoting famous people he had never heard of.

Today he believes that mixing students from different backgrounds adds depth to the curriculum and helps prepare them for the world of work.

“The diversity that results from a population with mixed backgrounds is one of our strengths; we’re very student-centric and believe a college education is more than academic and intellectual growth,” he noted. “It includes personal, spiritual and professional development entwined with emotional intelligence, which takes place both inside and outside of the classroom. We all see things through a different prism based on the environment we come from, so being culturally diverse leads to deeper discussions.”

Course of Action

AIC has a strategic plan for growth that is focused on three areas, said Maniaci.

“Our first goal is to build the demand curve — we need to give parents and students a better reason to come here, give them a reason to borrow money or pay out of pocket for schooling; education is expensive, and they need to know what the return on their investment will be,” he explained, adding that students and their families need to understand that in addition to the fact that college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetime than non-graduates, valuable lessons result from dealing with social, interpersonal, or political issues on campus.

The second pillar of the plan is to increase capacity, an initiative that runs the gamut, from the quality of the dining experience to student safety and course offerings, while the third component is to identify new programs that would benefit students.

“The world is changing so quickly that it’s important to identify future trends as we develop new programming,” Maniaci said.

Susanne Swanker says AIC’s new master’s program in Resort and Casino Management will help individuals take full advantage of opportunities in that industry.

Susanne Swanker says AIC’s new master’s program in Resort and Casino Management will help individuals take full advantage of opportunities in that industry.

Initiatives have been established to meet these goals, and for the past two years Dean of Students Brian O’Shaughnessy has worked closely with his staff to make sure that what is taught in the classroom correlates to students’ outside activities, something he said employers are looking for.

To that end, AIC also has a new four-year career-development program. Students in the federal work-study program, which comprise the majority of the population, apply for positions on campus during their first semester by working with career development staff members who help them to create a preliminary resume and teach them interviewing skills. Students receive assistance in applying for campus positions suited to their interests or major.

“In the past, students walked into different departments and asked if there were any job openings,” O’Shaughnessy said, adding that they are also bridging classroom connections by inviting underclassmen to attend sessions in their residence halls on topics such as using social media as a tool to market themselves, while upperclassmen are offered classroom presentations specific to their field of study.

The way housing is assigned has also changed, and the assumption that seniors are entitled to better options is not the rule of thumb. Every freshman on campus lives in a residence hall with a roommate and shares experiences and common spaces, including bathrooms.

“If they develop a sense of community and pride in their residence hall and feel safe and secure, it reduces the likelihood of damage or student-on-student crime,” O’Shaughnessy told BusinessWest, adding that for some students, feeling pride in the place they live in is a new concept.

During their sophomore or junior year, students can move into a suite which gives them more space. “A bathroom might be shared by four people instead of 30,” O’Shaughnessy said. “And seniors are eligible for full kitchens which provide them with opportunities to shop and maintain a household.”

Each student is also assigned a professional academic advisor who works with them during their freshman and sophomore years. They are experts in the college’s shared general-education requirements, which is helpful because many aren’t sure about what they want to major in. Swanker said they transition to a faculty advisor in their field of study during their junior year, a model adopted in 2013 that helps them focus on specifics that will help them find employment.

She added that the support they receive is especially important to first-generation college students who are highly motivated but often under a great deal of pressure if their family has invested everything they have into their education.

There is also a Center for Student Engagement and Leadership Develop-ment linked to clubs and organizations on campus.

“I tell all incoming freshmen that what they are learning is not specific to textbooks,” said O’Shaughnessy. “They’re learning how to think critically and solve problems whether they are a member of a club, dealing with an issue with their roommate, or in a leadership role on campus. We also stress that the skills they learn here can be applied to careers that haven’t even been invented yet.”

And since AIC works to respond to student’s individual needs, a number of new programs have been added to its Center for Academic Success. Today, they include the ACE (AIC Core Education) Program, a federally-funded initiative for first-generation college students as well as those with limited financial means. Services range from personal mentoring to academic support, career counseling, disability referral services, financial aid assistance, graduate school preparation, and specialized workshops and activities.

AIC also has a Supportive Learning Services program, which operates under the umbrella of its Curtis Blake Learning Services. It’s a fee-based program that provides students with one-on-one tutorial assistance to help with goal-setting, note-taking, time management, study skills, test taking, written expression, and self-advocacy.

Keeping Pace With the Times

Over the past few years, AIC has developed a number of new majors, and last November, officials finalized a decision to create a master’s degree program in Resort and Casino Management. Although it had been talked about when casino legislation was passed in 2011, Swanker said the school waited until voters cast ballots last November that ensured casinos would become a reality.

“The program will start this fall, and include courses in business specific to resort and casino management,” she said. “We’ve worked with executives at MGM to review the curriculum and make sure we’re covering topics that are relevant. We see career possibilities for graduates locally and in the region.”

Meanwhile, seven students were awarded a bachelor of science degree in Public Health for the first time during the commencement ceremonies in May.

“It’s a new, four-year program. We started it two years ago, but had some transfer students move into the major,” Swanker explained, adding that graduates have a wealth of opportunities in the growing healthcare field.

Another new offering is a graduate Family Nurse Practitioner degree. “We launched the program last fall; it’s very exciting because it’s an area of tremendous growth relevant to the direction in which healthcare professions are moving,” she continued.

AIC’s doctorate in Physical Therapy program also continues to thrive, and enrollment in its master’s program in Occupational Therapy is growing, thanks to its excellent reputation and the increase in students interested in health services.

Swanker said people employed in that field typically take part in team meetings that address specifics to a patient, so to prepare them for that aspect of a job, AIC began holding day-long workshops two years ago to mirror what they will experience when they begin their clinical rotations.

There are also new undergraduate majors, and last year a Visual and Digital Arts degree was offered for the first time. “It allows students with an artistic bent to combine their interest with technology,” Swanker said. “It was something that was missing because we didn’t have a major for people interested in the arts.”

Some students in the program are minoring in business or taking a double major in both fields, which will be beneficial if they want to run a small theater or an art gallery.

“The beauty of this degree is that it can be tailored to a student’s interests, because it includes writing, directing, acting and costume design. It has increased our enrollment and we have students coming here just for this major,” Swanker said.

Another new offering is a minor in Fraud and Financial Crime, which includes courses in criminal justice and accounting. “Students can take an exam when they complete the course and become certified in the field, which increases their chances for employment,” Swanker said.

Forging Ahead

Ground was broken in May on an $8 million renovation to the dining commons. The new, state-of-the-art space will include a wide variety of seating options as well as food choices and services, including customized preparation, an open concept kitchen with a Mongolian grill, a wood-fired pizza oven, and more.

“The dining commons is an important student and academic hub on campus,” Maniaci told BusinessWest. “The new facility will give students a more comfortable and modern place to come together and was designed to serve their needs and expectations.”

It’s part of a larger effort to create a campus that caters to the needs of students today, and will enhance the new programs that are helping students succeed and integrate lessons they learn inside and outside of the classroom.

“We’re teaching them that everything they do here can play a role in their future career, which ranges from how they present themselves to how they speak or how they conduct themselves as a member or leader of an organization on campus,” O’Shaughnessy explained in summation.

The changes have all been positive, and Maniaci is optimistic about the future. This sentiment is backed by facts: The Chronicle of Higher Education named AIC as one of the fastest-growing colleges from 2002-2012, due to a growth rate of 127%, which more than doubled their enrollment in ten years.

And the upward trajectory is expected to continue, thanks to the welcoming culture and the efforts to create new programs and majors that meet the changing needs of students today.

“I expect to make as much progress in the next 10 years as we’ve made in the last decade,” Maniaci said.

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