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UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences QuickStart student Sarah Akakpo poses for a portrait at her alma mater, Washington Park High School in Racine, Wis., Monday, Aug. 6, 2018. Photos by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS

Sarah Akakpo of Racine, Wisconsin, has big plans. She wants to earn a biology degree, go to medical school, and become a dermatologist or public health official. Like many first-year college students, she admits she was nervous about what her college experience would be like. Also on her mind were the cost of higher education and the time it could take to earn a degree. While a majority of students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate with little or no debt, and finish in about four years, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) is working to help even more students achieve those goals. 

Akakpo enrolled in QuickStart – a brand new “early start” summer program at CALS for incoming first-year students. After graduating from Washington Park High School, she balanced a summer job with some QuickStart online coursework. She earned two credits before the official start of the fall semester, received tailored academic and career planning, and participated in early networking opportunities to meet her future classmates, CALS faculty and researchers. The program is designed to help her make the most of her college experience, and begin her career – quicker.

The online course – “Foundations” – guides students in examining their strengths, values, social identities, and academic and career interests. They also get a preview of advising, health, and academic resources on campus. QuickStarters can move into their residence halls early to beat the rush. That’s when “Connect2Campus” begins, providing students the opportunity to meet CALS researchers face-to-face in their laboratories, visit local businesses tied to the life sciences and agriculture, and learn to navigate the Madison campus.

For Akakpo, one of 103 students in the inaugural QuickStart class, the program has already paid off.

“QuickStart really showed me that I have tons of resources on campus,” she says. “The Center for Pre-Health Advising – that’s a resource that I could use, because I’m going into the pre-med field.”

“Our QuickStart students are highly motivated, but many were nervous about what college would be like,” says Tanya Cutsforth, CALS QuickStart program manager. “The eight-week online summer course allows them the flexibility to begin their college transition from home. When they arrive for the weeklong on-campus portion of our program, they immediately start making connections – not only with each other, but with all of the people, programs, and places they learned about throughout the summer.”

Akakpo was one of 40 students to receive a scholarship for QuickStart from the Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association (WALSAA). WALSAA contributed $25,000 in seed funding for the program, allowing CALS to award need-based scholarships, many to students who are the first in their families to attend college.

QuickStart students listen to a presentation by instructor and program manager Tanya Cutsforth, not pictured, in Nancy Nicholas Hall at UW-Madison in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018.

“Being able to get that scholarship really helped me out a lot,” says Akakpo. “It not only enabled me to do QuickStart, but it enabled me to jumpstart my future. I feel like I can succeed a lot more, which will probably, in turn, help me financial-wise, career-wise. I can look back at it and be like, ‘You know what, I’m here because of QuickStart.’ I think that’s great.”

Feedback from the inaugural QuickStart class has been overwhelmingly positive. In a survey conducted by CALS earlier this fall, 99 percent of students reported feeling connected to their peers and the CALS community, and 100 percent said they understand the advising resources available to them. Several have already landed research jobs thanks to the program.