When Erin Hood first arrived on campus her freshman year at the University of Cincinnati (UC), her classroom had no walls — until she built them herself. Erin was one of 20 first-year students in a First Year Experience Honors Scholars service-learning English course who took part in UC’s annual building partnership with Cincinnati Habitat for Humanity.
The academically talented freshmen work on the home two weeks before classes officially get underway at UC. As a result, they’re using hammers and nails to construct a very personal lesson in compassion and community, and later writing about that experience. The goal is to keep these high-achieving first-year students connected with their coursework, their peers, their community, and most importantly, their campus, as they continue on the pathway to a college degree.
I really wanted to take the course, because I thought it was a great way to meet people, Erin said. Now a sophomore, the 20-year-old student in UC’s internationally ranked graphic design program is keeping up with the heavy demands of her academic program.
UC’s First Year Experience (FYE) begins with admission to the university and continues through the end of the student’s first spring quarter. The model was developed by a steering committee with representatives from the Provost Office, Student Affairs and Services, college offices, and faculty, and was reviewed by the Faculty Senate, deans, and associate deans. Since 2002, the model has served as a guide for colleges crafting FYE programs that fit the needs of their students and the unique cultures of UC’s diverse colleges and programs. Key elements of UC’s FYE program include the following.
Engaging and enriching classroom instruction
Frequent feedback from faculty on student performance
Accurate and timely academic advising
Study, learning, and life management skills
Career counseling and social and academic activities outside the classroom
The FYE model was updated in spring 2006 as part of UC’s academic planning process. The current model urges colleges and programs to design FYE components that introduce first-year students to the types of learning activities and level of accomplishment that graduating students are expected to demonstrate. The current model aims to do the following.
Help students acquire intellectual and self-management skills needed for success in the university, as well as in life-long learning.
Engage students with the cultural life and diversity of a large, urban research university.
Focus students’ attention on what their professional and civic responsibilities to the world might be as educated persons.
Advance students’ capacity to make connections between knowledge gained from multiple sources and to apply their increasingly comprehensive understanding to new questions and situations.
As we assess the program’s success, we’re following student enrollment, grade point average, graduation rates, and surveys on student satisfaction. Since FYE was first introduced in 2000, first- to second-year retention rates for first-time full-time students have risen from 73.3 percent to 80.0 percent for the 2005 cohort. Students enrolled in yearlong learning communities are retained at a 90 percent rate.
Under the FYE umbrella, students have the option (or are required) to be placed in learning communities in most of UC’s baccalaureate colleges. Last fall, UC’s learning communities marked their seventh year as a university-wide initiative, with 90 learning communities and 1,504 first-year students enrolled for fall quarter. UC defines a learning community as a group of approximately 25 first-year students who take two or more courses together. Students find that learning communities build friendships and study groups, bringing a smaller campus feel to a large urban research university campus.
At first, the university seemed so large, UC senior Laura Deller recalled of her freshman year.The learning community helped me get comfortable, and it made me accountable, because if I didn’t show up for class, someone was calling me, asking where I was. Deller is now co-captain of student peer leaders who work with learning communities.
In an age where new students are deciding in just a few weeks whether they’re going to stay or leave a particular college or university, we continue to explore how to strengthen the bonds that allow students to look into the faces of friends instead of so many strangers on a big college campus — to see an exciting, rather than a daunting, academic challenge. It’s a plan that’s showing success as the student arrives at his or her biggest day of all at the University of Cincinnati — Commencement.
Pamela F. Person is director of the University of Cincinnati Center for First Year Experience and Learning Communities. She was one of 10 educators nationally to receive the Outstanding First-Year Student Advocate Award at the February Conference on The First-Year Experience in Addison, TX. The award recognizes work with first-year students and how that work has made a difference with students and the culture of their institutions.