Newest ADVANCE cohort connects with coaches, peers and program leaders online

For many of those who attended the ADVANCE welcome event on Sept. 2, the virtual orientation was a family affair. Around 150 students, their parents and supporters logged in to kick off the journey that will bring them from Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) to George Mason University.

Now in its third year, the ADVANCE program has enrolled more than 1,700 students, including nearly 660 new students who joined this fall—the largest cohort to date.

The first ADVANCE orientation to be held virtually, this event was an opportunity for students to connect with each other and the program despite the disruption to on-campus activities due to the pandemic.

“ADVANCE is all about creating connections and giving our students access to information, their coaches and each other,” said Ashlie Prioleau, executive director of the program. “This year, we had to be creative about designing an introductory program that communicates all those characteristics online. It’s important because this initial experience sets the tone for how we engage with students throughout their time with us.”

Named 2019 partnership of the year by Education Dive for its cloud computing degree pathway developed jointly with Amazon Web Services, the ADVANCE program offers students defined roadmaps that lead to bachelor’s degrees, many in high-demand fields. Clear course sequences save students time and money, and a singular student experience connects them to Mason from Day One.

There are 173 students who have already successfully transitioned into Mason after earning an associate’s degrees at NOVA.

An online poll conducted during the orientation showed that a majority of the attendees identified the streamlined degree pathways as the primary reason they joined the program. ADVANCE offers students a choice of close to 100 pathways leading to graduation in four years, if students stay on track. In addition to the concentration in cloud computing, this year the program has added information technology and atmospheric sciences degree pathways.

“When we originally designed the program, we knew that aligning the coursework would be one of the hardest parts,” said Janette Muir, associate provost for academic initiatives and services and leader of the team that builds these pathways. “But it’s arguably the most important part. Faculty from NOVA and Mason spend a lot of time fine-tuning their courses to ensure that students follow the best possible path toward graduation.”

Orientation attendees also cited the success coaches as a draw for the program. Last Wednesday’s program introduced students to all seven of the program’s success coaches. Unlike the first two years, success coaching is now fully conducted online. Students are scheduling Zoom meetings with their assigned coaches who are helping them stay connected and on track.

New ADVANCE students gain unprecedented access to Mason, even while they take classes at NOVA. Orientation attendees were connected to Mason staff from Athletics, the Center for Advancement of Well-being, Career Services, Student Health Services and other offices where services are available to them.

This fall’s cohort is the first to have access to Handshake, Mason’s job search portal. One of the features of ADVANCE is its connection to the workforce, and this access will help connect students to employment opportunities and trends as early as possible.

“Even as the pandemic upends the lives of students, ADVANCE continues to widen access to education and learning opportunities” Prioleau said. “The program is doing exactly what it is intended to do, which is to provide a predictable path to a college degree and a better future, regardless, and in this case, in spite of students’ circumstances.”