Dr. Dong launches Cal State LA’s STAR program to increase transfer student success in STEM
This is the first feature in College Futures Foundation’s Leaders Driving Change recognition series. Through this series, we are lifting up leaders, institutions, and organizations committed to equitable, student-centered support and a culture of continuous improvement. We are showcasing leaders and teams who are easing student transitions, providing holistic student supports, and prioritizing equity and inclusivity. Learn more.
Watch the video and keep reading below to learn more about Dr. Dong and the STAR program.
For many students in California, transferring from community college to a four-year university can be a life-changing achievement. It can also be a difficult transition—far too many students are unable to make the move to a university because of the current complexity of the transfer process. At Cal State LA, Dr. Jane Dong is transforming the transfer student experience by clearing pathways and providing students the support they need to move from pre-transfer to graduation with the new Successful Transfer And Retention (STAR) program.
Dr. Dong is the associate dean of the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology (ECST). She has served as an advisor for multiple student organizations, such as the student chapter of Society for Women Engineers. “What really inspired me is the excitement, the energy, the resilience, and persistence that our students express and demonstrate in their academic journey,” said Dr. Dong. “That’s really a great asset for the next generation of engineers or STEM professionals. That’s what we want to see in the next generation of the workforce.”
During her time working closely with students as an advisor and professor, Dr. Dong and her colleagues heard consistently that students do not receive enough guidance at all stages of their educational journey. Transfer students in particular face unique challenges in navigating multiple institutions and would benefit from having clear information about the transfer process, major selection, and ultimately, career choice.
Opening STEM Careers to All
In Los Angeles County, opening pathways from community colleges to four-year degrees in STEM majors provides economic opportunity for students from the region’s racially and socioeconomically diverse communities.
Dr. Dong and the STAR team have designed the program to address key challenges transfer students frequently encounter, including lack of student support, challenges navigating the transfer process such as loss of credits during transfer, and post-transfer academic shock from transitioning into a new campus.
Cal State LA and its community college partners serve a large number of students from families with low incomes, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college. Without adequate guidance, students often struggle with career exploration and class selection, which can lead to taking extra units that do not count toward their future degrees and affecting their financial aid opportunities. At community colleges, career technical education (CTE) and vocational programs provide valuable education to develop students’ job skills. However, lack of a clear path from CTE programs to bachelor’s degrees presents a roadblock for students to expand their career options.
“In the STAR program, we are working with our community college partners to broaden the access to education in STEM—and we are here to help students reach their career goals much sooner,” said Dr. Dong.
Dr. Dong and the STAR team stand out as pioneers in higher education for establishing pathways from CTE programs at community colleges to bachelor’s degrees. STAR aligns community college coursework to Cal State LA’s College of Engineering, Science and Technology course requirements so more students have a streamlined way to earn a STEM degree. To support student success before and after they transfer, current Cal State LA transfer student mentors will be matched with students at their former community college, bringing shared experience and greater familiarity with the local context.
“Students will have the guidance of the peer mentors to navigate through the pathways so they know step-by-step what to do,” said Dr. Dong. “When they come to Cal State LA, the peer mentors will create a nice community so our new transfer students will be connected with friendly faces here to support them. There’s a sense of community here that is really critical for our transfer students to feel at home, to connect to each other, and to be successful in their academic journey.”
How Dr. Dong and the STAR team make it happen
Along with Dr. Dong, the STAR team includes Dr. Daniel Galván, director of acceleration initiatives and student engagement, and Dr. Rupa Purasinghe, chair of the Department of Technology.
“Dr. Dong is one who is always looking out for our students and has our students at the forefront of everything she does and everything that she guides the rest of us in the college to do,” said Dr. Galván. “She is someone who will come up and bat for our students—and when I talk about being student-centered, Dr. Dong is who comes to mind.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Dong has demonstrated a deep consideration for student’s academic support and well-being. Many students have required COVID-related coursework support or exemptions, and she has been there to listen and help.
Within the STAR team, Dr. Galván describes Dr. Dong as collaborative, giving equal platform to everyone to speak up and exchange ideas. She also continually drives an asset-based approach throughout their supports for students. He sees Dr. Dong’s leadership style as a boon to the program, especially while STAR is new. Dr. Galvan said, “It allows us to go and think beyond the stars into space as far as ideas go, because we learn and try, and so far things have worked well for us.”
Designing student-centered supports
“We recognize that transfer students’ experiences are very different from first-time freshmen experiences, and so acknowledging that and building a community around the needs and wants of our transfer students is what we are planning on doing with this program,” said Dr. Galván.
From the outset of STAR, the team designed feedback loops from the project teams, students, peer mentors, and community college partners so they can track if the peer mentoring program is going well and understand what they need to do to successfully support students. “Continuous improvement is really the core of our operation here,” said Dr. Dong.
They have also designed assessments to learn and share the impact of STAR on academic performance, career choices, and students’ sense of belonging and support.
The Future of STAR
Dr. Dong expects the peer mentors will reach out to hundreds of students at their community college partners in East Los Angeles College, Pasadena City College, Glendale City College, El Camino College, and Mt. San Antonio College. Her hope is that this program will become a model of collaborative solution to increase the success of the transfer student in STEM areas.
Of the STAR program, Dr. Dong said, “We anticipate this will benefit many students in the years to come.”