Torchlight | Fall 2015

Peer support helps keep students on path to graduation

Making the big move from high school to college can be tough. For Sac State students who may be the first in their families to do so, three programs are reshaping this precarious transition by setting students on the straight and narrow path to a college degree.


Graduates of the CAMP program pose with President Nelsen and City Councilmember and Sac State alumnus Eric Guerra ’03, MPPA ’08 during Sac State Day @ City Hall. 

Research shows that certain types of “high-impact” practices such as encouraging students to interact in one-on-one or in small groups can affect students’ overall GPAs in the University as well as their staying power in college, says Marcellene Watson-Derbigny, associate vice president of Student Retention and Academic Success.

“Students participating in peer tutorial support programs obtain a half to a whole grade point higher in grade attainment outcomes when compared to students not utilizing this service,” she says.

Since 1981, the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) has been helping students who are migratory or seasonal farmworkers—or children of such workers—complete their first year of studies.

“Only about 1 percent of migrant students go on to college, which tells you how difficult it is to get them to enroll,” says Viridiana Diaz, director of CAMP. “Through our program, every migrant student is connected to a CAMP leader who’s also a migrant student. The idea is that if they feel a sense of belonging when they’re here—they feel like they can be themselves.”

Because migrant students are from rural areas: Dixon, Stockton, Salinas, Watsonville—not Sacramento—they must relocate and move, take placement exams, register for classes and develop new relationships all on their own.

“We provide a very family-like environment where they feel safe and can come home to,” Diaz says. “CAMP is peer-based—there’s really no better way to do it. Students feel much more comfortable around similar students, and they’re much more likely to make themselves vulnerable and admit they’re struggling in certain areas.”

Each CAMP leader is assigned as a mentor to six or seven students based on major and hometown. These leaders meet with students on a weekly basis to check in and help them determine what their future needs may be.

“They really get to know these kids and provide us with information that might affect their studies, like a family illness or death, which allows us to do early intervention,” she says.

Getting students to the second year

Launched in 2012 with a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the Full Circle Project is the first program to serve underrepresented Asian American and Pacific Islander students on campus.

“Through the project’s freshman learning community, we let our students know about support systems, advising and tutoring,” says Tim Fong, director of the program. “But on top of that, we want our students to think broadly, not just about their education, but also about what they want to do afterwards. We’re focused on getting them into a career.”

When Fong first worked on the proposal for funding, he found data showed only 40 percent of Asian American students were graduating in six years. “They come in with fairly good GPAs but weren’t finishing,” he says. Now, more than 90 percent of students from Full Circle Project’s first two cohorts returned for their second year, 10 percentage points higher than first-year students as a whole.

First-generation focus

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center opened its doors in Fall 2015 with a campus-wide mission to ensure success of African American students at Sac State. As a home base for exploring African American heritage, legacy, leadership and the college community, the impact of the center is huge, says Watson-Derbigny, who also directs the center.

“Right now, we are directly impacting 1,750 African American students—and more than 8,600 first-generation students. The center is truly for the entire campus.”

The center also selects Sac State students to serve as MLK leaders. The volunteers use peer support mechanisms such as peer advising and tutoring, social media engagement and events to connect with their counterparts.

“We want these experiential opportunities to leverage our students in their professional lives so that they continue to engage in the process of lifelong learning,” she says.

Supporting student success

Research shows peer-support programs can help students stay on the path to graduation. Sac state has a number of these programs, including:

  • College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP): Helps students from
    migrant and seasonal farm worker backgrounds transition from high
    school to college.
  • Full Circle Project: Aims to improve retention and graduation rates
    among Asian American and Pacific Islander students campuswide.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Center: Empowers African American students, or
    those interested in African American heritage, in their pursuit of a degree.

To learn how you can support high-impact programs at Sac State, contact the Office of University Development at (916) 278-6989 or visit