Nan Austin

Keeping college-goers going takes some work

Metal puzzle pieces crafted for participants in the From Chaos to Compromise McDaniel College freshman seminar, a class designed to help first year students succeed.
Metal puzzle pieces crafted for participants in the From Chaos to Compromise McDaniel College freshman seminar, a class designed to help first year students succeed.

Our local university will welcome many of its freshmen Wednesday with move-in day at the dorms. California State University, Stanislaus has a week of activities planned to help the new kids on the block get to know campus geography and services.

On Monday, newcomers will gather at 10 a.m. in the Amphitheater for one of the first stamps of new university President Ellen Junn’s administration, the Freshman Convocation.

These formal welcome ceremonies bring the cohort together for stirring speeches and a chance to bond, both designed to strengthen ties to the university and turn student eyes toward graduation. Monday’s event will include a Welcome Fair at 11 a.m. in the quad.

The convocation is something private universities often do, conferring a sense of tradition and higher purpose to the next standard bearers of a proud institution. Junn pulled several ideas from the ivy-draped East Coast to help raise retention and graduation rates at CSU Dominguez Hills, where she was vice president for academic affairs.

Two other ideas she instituted there were a summer pre-college session – to get slightly behind freshmen up to speed and give on-track newcomers a head start – and the freshman dream seminar. For the seminar, she took top faculty and had them design a course on a topic they loved, giving 25 or fewer new students an advising-intensive introduction to high-level higher ed.

Her programs at Dominguez Hills were credited for raising the freshman retention rate to 93 percent, Junn said in an interview this spring. The programs she developed especially benefited first- generation students, which also make up a majority of Stan State’s student body.

Will those programs, in some form, also be coming to the Turlock campus? No decision yet, but I thought I would give some insight into how one college’s freshman seminars work since my son will be a peer mentor in one this year.

The first-year seminar has been a freshman requirement for decades at McDaniel College, a small, private liberal arts college in Westminster, Md., where my son is a senior. The college sent me the list of 29 courses every freshman gets. From 10 to 18 students fill each class, matched by student preference and balanced by gender.

Honestly, I would love to take some of them: Dr. Who and Metacognition; Love Gone Wrong in Literature; Childhood Around the World; America’s Game – Baseball; What the Bible Really Says; The Medieval Supernatural. And on the list goes.

My son, Brian Austin, will be helping out in From Chaos to Compromise, a freshman seminar that uses historical role-playing to develop a host of life and college skills. This year students will play actual figures from ancient Greece and the Crusades, he told me. They have to research their characters and take on their role to try and influence how the conflict plays out.

“In our game, Socrates lived,” he said with a chuckle.

Learning how to do research is a critical college skill, but through the game kids also have to work on debate skills and public speaking, and learn something about politics and the conventions of the time period. For example, making something happen takes figuring out needed resources and getting them using the coin of the realm, so to speak.

“Because of the game dynamic, you get so competitive. You spend hours and hours studying when you don’t have to,” he said.

While the classes have nothing to do with a future major, they do help new students meet others in the same, anxious boat. The professor teaching the class serves as the adviser for those students until they decide on a major and get an adviser from that department, said Stephanie Madsen, a professor of psychology and interim director of first-year seminars at McDaniel.

“We want to provide a place where students can transition to the college experience,” Madsen said in a phone interview.

The four-unit classes include regular class times and what’s called a flex session, when students meet for an additional hour and get basics like how to use the digital library, financial literacy and other beginner essentials. They have to write papers, first in class to build skills, then longer projects on their own, she said.

“We have common learning outcomes. How that happens is unique in each class, but the goals are the same,” Madsen said.

The program has been so successful the college started a similar program for transfer students, she said. This year’s options for them are Sociology of McDaniel, where students can study the campus they are joining, and Active Citizenship through Social Justice, encouraging students to delve into community needs.

Every campus that opts for freshman seminars devises its own system, which the Turlock campus has made no commitment to yet. And there is no reason to hope Love Gone Wrong or Dr. Who would be topics. But it is an idea with potential, and future freshmen can dream.