First Year Focus On Success

From the moment new students step foot on campus for orientation in June, orientation leaders greet them with an infectious enthusiasm and willingness to answer any questions. When they return in August to begin their first semester at Ship, Fall Welcome Week activities help first-year students take their initial steps in their college careers.

Some students thrive when they are let loose to discover their interests and career aspirations through their classes and participation in clubs and organizations. Others may feel unprepared and struggle to find the resources they need to succeed.

The First-Year Experience (FYE), which will be introduced into the curriculum for all incoming students in fall 2018, will employ new teaching techniques and make university-wide strides toward student success—even more than it does already.

“It’s kind of like students in high school are being asked to come to campus and they’ve never driven. And now we’re giving them all sports cars and saying, okay, drive! But they don’t know how to drive, where to drive, or what driving looks like,” said Richard Zumkhawala-Cook, an English professor who will teach two First-Year Seminar courses next semester.

“And at the same time (there are) all sorts of opportunities, so we give them big roads, too. But I think the First-Year Experience class will help guide them. Some students get here and they say ‘I don’t want to drive,’ but that’s what you’re supposed to do here. Or they’ll say, ‘I don’t know where to drive.’ Well, we will help you.”

From Idea to Reality

An FYE program isn’t a new idea on college campuses. Several colleges and universities in Pennsylvania have these types of programs, such as King’s College and Edinboro University. It isn’t a new idea for Shippensburg University, either.

“For almost thirty years they have talked about introducing a First-Year Seminar, but it really took new life with the hiring of President Laurie Carter,” said Dr. Steven Burg, chair of the History and Philosophy Department and FYE co-coordinator.

“She had both been someone who had a First-Year Seminar when she was in college, and I think that she had also seen what a First-Year Seminar could do for students while at Eastern Kentucky University. So for her, it was one of her top priorities when coming in as president of Shippensburg.”

In order to make room for the new First-Year Seminar course, University 101, the general education curriculum needed to undergo some changes.

“When this (idea) came along, one of the things that the History Department decided to do was—because of the value of first-year seminars—we made a significant change to what we do as a department,” Burg said.

Instead of History 105 being offered for first-year students during the fall semester and History 106 in the spring, the History Department faculty will now focus on teaching the First-Year Seminar in the fall. This means students will be required to only take one general education history course instead of two.

“For me and my department, this is something we believe is a good thing for the university—a good thing for students— and we are deeply involved in this.”

Once the new course fit into the freshmen curriculum, Burg and Dr. Laurie Cella, English professor and FYE co-coordinator, as well as other program administrators had to figure out how to get the ball rolling in a short period of time.

Some measures that followed included constructing the FYE curriculum, and recruiting and training peer mentors and faculty.

All Hands on Deck

While the developmental process of the FYE was by no means effortless, there was a significant amount of support across campus, and individuals stepped up to fill the empty roles quickly.

“My sense is that there wasn’t a single person who had one person come up and say ‘will you teach this class?’ It was something that was in the air that we’re breathing. It was coming from so many different levels. It was coming from Old Main, it was coming from the departments, it was coming from the faculty leadership and university leadership,” Zumkhawala-Cook said.

Since the First-Year Seminar will be a required course for all first-year students, there will be more than sixty-five sections. Each will be capped at twenty students so that the class sizes remain small and manageable. Of the numerous sections, about forty-four professors from a variety of departments will teach the course, and some have volunteered to instruct two sections.

While the professors have some flexibility in the application of material within their sections, the introductory course will focus on four main things—cultivating academic and scholarly success, engagement Ship students train as Peer Anchors to mentor incoming freshman entering the First-Year Experience. with the university community, fostering personal development and wellness, and promoting an understanding of diversity and social responsibility.

These concepts will be built upon in general education classes in the following semesters, including Introduction to Human Communication, Writing Intensive First-Year Seminar, and Introduction to Academic Writing. Students will intentionally take these courses with the same group of twenty or fewer students that they did in the First-Year Seminar class, so the peer connections made in the classroom will grow into lasting bonds.

In addition to the relationships built among fellow first-year students, each course of the First-Year Seminar will be equipped with a student mentor who carries the title “Peer Anchor.”

“They’re going to be essential because there are many times that my students are afraid to come to me for a variety of reasons. It’s not even just afraid, it’s that most professors are authority figures and first time students don’t know how to approach us. So the Peer Anchors are going to be the bridge from the students themselves and the professors,” said Dr. Stephanie Jirard, professor of criminal justice who will teach a First-Year Seminar course in the fall.

Lindsay Walker, a sophomore psychology major and future FYE Peer Anchor is excited to mentor to new students. She said this will help her build interpersonal skills and allow her to directly impact the next generation of Ship students.

“It’s definitely going to be an exciting experience to work with a faculty member, as Shippensburg has a diverse mixture of faculty members with so much to offer incoming students,” she said.

Students and faculty are just two of the populations on campus actively participating in the student-centered FYE. Many faculty members think this culture shift contributes to the campus-wide unity that Carter advocates. “Under the leadership of President Carter, there has been an effort to try to break down divisions within the university—to get people talking and collaborating together in some ways that in the past they may not have been doing as much,” Burg said.

“I think the more that we can build connections across campus, the more that we can get all people thinking about how we all have different roles but we are all here to support and serve the students, this is going to be a powerful period of change for the university.”

Making Students the Priority

While the successes of other FYE programs were used as a foundation to shape Ship’s program, how to address and fulfill the needs relevant to this campus is something that the co-coordinators and campus leaders are still exploring.

“Every institution is different, so we don’t want this to be Clarion’s or Harvard’s or Georgetown’s first-year seminar. We want this to really be something that reflects what’s unique about Shippensburg University,” Burg said.

With the tendencies of Ship students in mind, the FYE curriculum will monitor and address the weekly development of first-year students as they adjust to college life.

The first two weeks on campus are considered the “honeymoon,” when everything is new and unfamiliar to students. During these initial weeks, professors will strive to make students feel welcome and supported. Following the “honeymoon” is week three and four, “culture shock,” which is when students begin to have their initial doubts. It is essential for them to develop a sense of purpose and connection to the university.

Weeks six through nine approach “the initial adjustment and growth through experience” phase. Students finally begin to relax on campus and gain the confidence to step outside their comfort zones. Around the midterm at weeks eight to twelve is the time of “mental isolation or evolution,” which calls for reassessment and strengthening skills and study methods.

When the final weeks of the semester come to a close, students are met with “acceptance and integration.” During this time, the workload and intensity are high while students are prepping for final exams, but they also begin to feel closure and at home on campus.

By discussing these phases in the classroom and encouraging students to speak with their professor or Peer Anchors for additional support, these issues will be addressed and students will receive the guidance they need.

Cultivating Skills for Success

Like many FYE professors, Jirard will approach the progression of these phases and the curriculum themes of success, community engagement, and diversity with creative teaching. She will require Frankenstein as a reading in her class because it conveys a series of themes that are especially engaging for first-year students.

“We’re going to start with the novel and then branch out on those themes—criminal justice themes, deviance, society’s acceptance,” she said. “All of these are things I plan to relate to our current world in an academic way.”

Students will research the themes by reading related articles and completing assignments that will prompt them to further analyze their findings. After the concepts are cultivated in the classroom, students will be encouraged to apply them to their lives and the lives of others by attending events on campus and participating in service learning.

“Instead of it being about product, the students will become skilled in reflective practices and experience. It’s going to require them to be tapped in on everything that is going on around campus,” Zumkhawala-Cook said.

First-Year Seminar professors will encourage students to attend activities paid for by their tuition, then cater discussion around those events in class. Each class also will take part in two service experiences in the community during the semester.

“There are a various ways to make this connections happen through the First-Year Seminar. Some faculty and Peer Anchors may choose our fall day of service, others may choose a trip to a museum, or a musical, or partnering with a nonprofit agency to do a service-learning project,” said Javita Thompson, director of FYE and community engagement.

These experiential components of the course will work to foster connections that exist both on and off campus for students.

Future Focused

While the core of the FYE program will have the greatest impact on first-year students, the ripple effects of campus connectivity will not stop at the first semester or the first year. The hope is that rethinking the framework for first-year students will lead professors to revaluate teaching practices of all courses.

“We’re thinking about building a more strategic and purposeful teaching and learning series for the next year and hoping that would grow into a center of teaching and learning,” Cella said. “I want to think of this as a really exciting opportunity to think more critically about our teaching strategies and how we can continue to grow them, and foster a sense of a community of scholars thinking about how their teaching is impacting students.”

Considering how the additional resources and mentorships provided through the FYE will better acclimate first-year students, the program will likely become a stepping-stone for improvements across campus. However, with this fall being the first year for FYE on campus, in many ways it will be a trial and error experience that will help shape its future.

“This is always going to be a work in progress. We’re committed to doing this to the best possible extent that we can,” Burg said. “We’re going to be doing a lot of assessment and reflection to keep trying to make it better. We haven’t even offered the seminar the first time, and we’re already planning for the second time.”

Burg and other FYE administrators have noted that first-year students are not the only students who are faced with struggles when adjusting to college life. Transfer students, non-traditional students, and veterans are all groups that they hope to include in FYE in future years with a similar course, such as University 201.

This is only one of the many possibilities for the FYE, and the opportunities for growth are plentiful because of the campuswide dedication to student success.

“The energy is different than I’ve seen in a long time here as far as doing something new and feeling good about what we’re doing,” Zumkhawala-Cook said. “We’re going into it with all of our energy forward, so (the future) looks very optimistic.”