University City

UNC Charlotte programs offer freshmen unique opportunities

Shawn Simmons is the assistant director of multicultural academic services at UNC Charlotte. He coordinates the University Transition Opportunities Program.
Shawn Simmons is the assistant director of multicultural academic services at UNC Charlotte. He coordinates the University Transition Opportunities Program. CHARLENE PRICE-PATTERSON

Entering college for the first time can be an overwhelming experience for any student.

There are extra hurdles for some who may enter with a few challenges, so UNC Charlotte offers a couple of programs to help students close those gaps.

Shawn Simmons, assistant director of Multicultural Academic Services, coordinates the University Transition Opportunities Program.

In 1986, Dr. Herman Thomas, a professor in UNCC’s Religious Studies Department, created UTOP to help at-risk African-American students, Simmons said.

“The goal of the program is to facilitate the transition from high school to college through a variety of experiences and collaborations.”

UTOP is a six-week residential program that gives students a head start by offering peer mentoring in summer.

“Students get acclimated to the college campus, and they take three college courses, earning seven credit hours,” said Simmons. “We introduce them to campus resources and professionals. We also offer academic skills workshops and tutoring.”

The program also offers what is called a “co-curricular component” that includes weekend trips, a talent show, a trip to Carowinds, a Charlotte Knights baseball game and more.

UTOP collaborates with many campus organizations and departments on campus.

Carlos Mendez is the assistant director of Latino Student Services and interim assistant director for Minority Student Services. He works in the Dean of Students office and partners with UTOP to offer the Students Advising for Freshmen Excellence program, a yearlong peer-mentoring program for incoming freshmen.

SAFE is a collaborative effort between the Student Affairs and Academic Affairs offices. Mendez and others say it is a holistic approach to helping students adjust.

“SAFE Voyage begins one week before school starts,” Mendez said. “Students are paired with mentors (top student leaders), and various resources are available.”

The program allows students to move into dorms one week early and get acclimated to the campus through workshops and social events.

“Students get tips about sitting in front of the class, asking questions; they learn leadership and development skills and much more,” said Mendez.

But, Mendez said, it’s not all work and no play. “Last year we had movie night and rented out the school movie theater. We also had a basketball game with mentors versus mentees.”

Mendez said 120 students participated last year, and he hopes to have 140 this year.

Although there is a cost for the weeklong SAFE Voyage program, the SAFE program is free for the remainder of the year.

Both SAFE and UTOP work with some of the same students.

Simmons says he wishes he could have had a UTOP experience before his undergraduate years.

“It would have helped a lot,” he said. “It helps with building relationships, time management, structure, etc. It gives students the mindset to succeed. I’ve seen the impact on students.”

Clarissa Finley said she is grateful for her UTOP experience. “Participating in UTOP was the best decision I could have made, because it pushed me outside of my comfort zone and gave me the opportunity to learn and experience the college life with a small group prior to the actual beginning of my collegiate career.

“UTOP definitely gave me the extra boost to try new things and serve as the student leader I am today,” Finley said.

Jodi Turner, UNCC’s associate director of multicultural academic services, says UTOP, SAFE and other programs at UNCC have been successful.

“We have been tracking our students for a number of years. We do have high retention and graduation rates,” she said.

Turner encourages college students to look for helpful resources wherever they attend.

Simmons and Mendez said they are proud of the fact that many current UNCC student leaders were participants in UTOP, SAFE or both. “Ultimately the goal is for the students to be successful overall, with job opportunities and life in general,” Simmons said.

Charlene Price-Patterson is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Charlene? Email her at

Learn more:

▪ For information about the UTOP program, contact Shawn Simmons: 704-687-0033;

▪ For information about the SAFE program, contact Carlos Mendez: 704-687-0357;

Although a portion of the UTOP budget is funded by the school, scholarship money for students is welcome. Donations can be sent to the UNC Charlotte Development Office, earmarked for UTOP.