To better assist students in the transition to post-secondary education, many institutions have offered iterations of courses, commonly called first-year seminars [FYS], with strong foci on interpersonal relationships, academic skills, and community-based belonging. In fact, Robert Feldman of the Cambridge University Press described FYS as “one of the most long-standing and most widespread interventions for the success of first-year students in colleges and universities in the United States [that], during their nearly 130-year history, have provided a space to reconcile the tensions between increased access and the retention of students.”
Considering this impact, it may come as no surprise that Oglethorpe launched their own FYS course in Fall 2022. Establishment of the seminar was largely funded through the Goizueta Foundation, a proposal submitted in 2021, and the “Sense of Belonging” subcommittee under the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task force.
Carrying into its second year this fall, the course offered 17 different sections with just under 272 freshmen enrolled. Operating in a small-group environment, FYS classes were one credit, met once a week for an hour and a half, and allowed students to work alongside a faculty facilitator and an upper-class peer mentor on themed, hands-on projects.
For example, the students of FYS-101-002, facilitated by Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Anna Ziering and upperclassmen Wynne Kelly, built “little libraries”: painted, shelved boxes, set to house books and placed in various spots around campus. Ziering identified that, not only were the material results of the project built, but also a community and greater sense of communication amongst peers. Particularly, the presence of a peer mentor like Kelly helped to reach students on a level that faculty often couldn’t through just emails and Canvas reminders.
One of the faculty liaisons of the program, Mariel Meier, stood on the DEI task force when the concept was first proposed in order to address various issues seen amongst incoming students. She conveyed that the overarching goal was to put an emphasis on connectivity and make resources on campus more available. Meier recognized that students, especially first-generation students, faced difficulties when navigating the university and locating support needed as well as noted the lack of a strong community in strictly academic settings, like those born from sports or extracurriculars.
Freshman Erin Jarrett, a first-generation student herself, echoed these complications Meier and the other faculty observed, finding herself stuck, in a sense, with no prior knowledge and unable to ask her family for help on college-related questions. Even so, she discovered that the course and interactions with her peers greatly assisted in the transition, filling in the gaps she otherwise may have struggled with.
“It definitely helped with being in a room with a bunch of people that you’re normally not in a class with [of] different majors,” Jarrett expressed. “I did become friends with like two people in it. And now, with other people who are in it, if you see them walking around campus, you’ll say ‘Hi’ to them. Having someone like Wynne [Kelly] who was a student mentor, having her help and be someone who has already been through Oglethorpe also helped out.”
Despite not being a first-generation student, freshman Zoya Beeman also emphasized the course’s social impact.
“Being in [FYS], not really having many people you may know in your year, you have people you recognize on campus and be like ‘Oh they were in my first-year seminar class,’” Beeman said. “I feel like it's beneficial even if you didn't talk to them or anything. You can just see them and have that instant connection.”
On the other hand, for some students, though not expecting to take a class like FYS, freshman Kyla Baker identified the positive impacts the course and related work had on their habits. Particularly, Baker noted an improvement in her study skills, in not procrastinating as often, and in setting goals for herself, including the importance of asking for help when needed.
From the mentor perspective, now-senior Adeline Horton reflected on her experience mentoring in 2022 for an FYS class led by the Dean of the Hammack School of Business, Dr. Stephen Craft, her role as a resource to her mentees, as well as the unique opportunities provided to the students. Some of the projects she helped facilitate included building an academic calendar, forming a four-year plan, administering aptitude quizzes, and checking in with her mentees.
“[FYS] gives [students] a good moment to scale in to college,” Horton said. “I think the hardest thing coming into college is that you're 18 years old. Sometimes you're not even that old. You pick this major that you think you like, but who's to say? And then you sit in FYS and it gives you the chance to actually deep dive into your major. And then you get to determine from there like, is this the right path for me? And I think that that's great and so worthwhile.”
In general, according to Feldman, “students who participate in FYS have demonstrated gains in academic achievement and grades; civic engagement; intercultural competence and multicultural awareness; positive relationships with faculty, staff, and peers; involvement on campus; and development of academic interpersonal and life skills.” To the degree she expressed, Horton also noticed these effects in her students.
“It was cool to see the way that the class impacted them and seeing who cared more about college, who cared less,” Horton said. “Because there were students that came in on the first day and sat in the back row and leaned back in their chairs and kicked their feet up. And then, by the end, they’re doing a great job; they’re trying really hard at this project, their final presentations, and at making connections with Dean Craft and making connections with me.”
Horton encouraged others to if given the opportunity, become a mentor.
“I'm not the kind of person that's going to just talk something up when I don't believe in it, but I do think that it's a good program and I think that Oglethorpe is doing something right and I'm eager to hear about how the program continues to grow and hopefully succeed,” Horton said. “Between the relationships you’ll get with the faculty that are the directors of the program, or the faculty that you work one on one with, down to the mentors or the mentees, its a really cool experience.”
According to Meier, not many changes in the program were made this year compared to its first launch, though they did substitute out some modules and programs to better fit the needs and gaps they identified, as well as increased the amount of training faculty received. Looking at how this fall only 60-70% of freshmen were enrolled in a FYS course, Meier hoped to expand the program to encompass all first-years in the future.
“I really hope that we look at the First Year Experience holistically and kind of start to reimagine it from the ground up, thinking first about how students interact with their faculty mentors and their peer mentors during the summer,” Horton offered. “Maybe reimagining what that first-semester class looks like [and integrating it] into the experience students have instead of just an add-on. This is really the beginning of the relationship that the students and faculty are building.”
*This article was written as an assignment for COM-240-001: Intro to Newswriting (Fall 2023)