Back on campus (with a pack of choices)

Every year, college freshmen stumble across gems of programs or coursesthat make a difference. Here are some tips for making those encounters morelikely.

Sitting in her adviser's office her first week as a DePauw University freshman, Heidi Rochner was all set to take "Intro to Financial Accounting," when she suddenly discovered it was a lot more than crunching numbers.

She hadn't noticed the tiny "s" printed beside the course description. And that meant she would do "a lot of speaking," her adviser told her.

"I said, 'Speaking? I thought this was accounting,' " says Ms. Rochner, now a sophomore, recalling the meeting a year ago.

But there was a big advantage. The class was smaller than the lecture-hall version. So, despite a disinclination to stand and deliver, she signed up. Rochner became part of "a team" of four classmates (in a class of about 40) who became friends. She gained confidence and skill at speaking - even giving her team's oral presentation.

Each year thousands of freshmen like Heidi stumble across some nugget bulging out of higher education's recent richest vein of innovation - freshman year. "Speaking across the curriculum" is one such invention.

Dozens of innovative programs aimed at engaging freshmen intellectually are popping up nationwide, says John Gardner, senior fellow at the National Research Center for the First-Year Experience at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Of course, huge freshman "intro" lecture classes still abound. But years of criticism of the quality of undergraduate education - combined with high costs of recruiting new students - have more schools bidding to retain students by stimulating their minds more.

"The competition has ratcheted up in the last 20 years," he says. "It has the academy reexamining itself and freshman year. New freshman programs are aimed at increasing learning. And the hoped-for byproduct is that they will be more successful - and more likely to stay."

Still, few freshmen are referred to these smaller, cutting-edge programs after arriving on campus. But if they knew what to look for, savvy frosh and even high school seniors could track down the best new opportunities without leaving it to chance.

Key programs to watch out for include:

*Speaking across the curriculum courses.

*Service learning: Interdisciplinary courses that combine academics with for-credit "volunteer" work in the community. Proponents say these deepen individual commitment values and learning in a discipline.

*Learning communities: Small groups of freshmen, often from the same dorm, moving together through two or more classes over a semester or more. The idea is to downsize the freshman experience, put students closer to each other and faculty, and get them to become intellectually engaged and emotionally connected with the school.

*Undergraduate student-faculty research: At some universities even freshmen (not just seniors and graduate students) with a good track record can link up with faculty and help them on their research projects.

*Residential colleges: A throwback to the way higher education used to be with faculty living in dorms with students. Classes and seminars are also often held in the dorm for those living there. Effect: tighter connections between students and faculty - and with the school.

Give a speech - in biology?

DePauw in Greencastle, Ind., and a few others pioneered speaking across the curriculum more than a decade ago. Only recently, however, has the school begun offering freshman-level courses. About 100 schools - double the number of a few years ago - have also adopted programs that include freshman-level courses that integrate speaking skills into poetry, philosophy, accounting, even biology, says Robert Weiss, a DePauw professor of communication.

Recent additions to the list include the College of William and Mary, Butler University, University of Richmond, University of Utah, Smith College, and Stanford University.

"Rather than putting people into big lecture sections, schools need to get freshmen right away into the things they are supposed to be doing in college - discussing and debating," Dr. Weiss says.

Serving while learning

Service learning is another approach that's spreading. Campus Compact, the group that began promoting the concept of weaving academics and community service together years ago now counts more than 600 campuses with programs or courses.

Angela Kirnon, a junior this fall at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., and others in her "Spanish for the Service Profession" course, got to speak Spanish on a field trip to help Latino flood victims in Quero, Texas, last year. The course requires a minimum of 20 hours in a setting where they interact with Spanish speakers in an agency providing for the Spanish-speaking community. This year freshmen, too, have been included.

"Helping those people in Texas was important to me," says the psychology and Spanish double major. "I think just having hands-on experience in any field gives you an edge. You're more prepared than students that don't."

Live-in professors

Residential colleges, by contrast, are an attempt by large universities to incorporate the look and feel of a liberal arts college. It's also a bid to return higher education to the way it used to be - with close collegiality among students and professors.

In 1994, for instance, the University of South Carolina decided it needed to raise its "retention rate" - and do that by making freshman year more meaningful. So it gutted a circa 1839 dormitory to create Preston College. Along the way it eliminated dozens of student rooms so there would be space in the building for class rooms, faculty offices, and a faculty apartment for a live-in professor. The school lost a lot of revenue.

But Ken Perkins says the change was a good one. A history professor who is also the "principal" of Preston College, he often holds court of an evening in his "principal's lodge" living room within the grand old building. He and his students live, eat, and breathe in a more intellectual environment now that it surrounds their living space.

"We're trying to create the kind of environment you'd find at a small liberal arts college and embed that in a fairly huge university with all its resources," Dr. Perkins says.

His main job, he says, is to create a symbiosis between academics and the social life of his 235 students. He is quite consciously linking them socially to 40 "faculty associates" (also university professors).

In the Preston building, seminars, plays, live band performances, and especially Monday-Thursday dinners create opportunities for faculty and students to get to know one another on a more personal level.

"If you go to a table in the dining room, students are likely to be talking with faculty about movies they've seen or football," he says. "It's like conversations ordinary people have when they sit down over dinner - not just a lot of talk about the great literature or something like that. And it makes a difference."

Christopher Wallace agrees. Now a sophomore, he found out about and applied to be in Preston before he arrived his freshman year. "It sounds like a strange concept but teachers are people too and they like us, so they hang with us," he says.

'Hey, I get the connection'

Learning communities are another approach that try to enrich the intellectual environment, but by getting professors to link course content.

"Freshmen often don't see how courses relate to each other," says Dr. Gardner, the freshman-year trend watcher. "The goal of the learning community is to make intellectual connections. And when they see the fit, for instance between a linked economics and political science course, then they have light-bulb moments. They say, 'Hey, I understand how what happened yesterday on the stock market will affect the election this fall."

Creating "intellectual coherence" among disciplines is something Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., has tried to do for decades for all 4,000 of its undergraduates. But they've been joined in recent years by about 400 other schools, says Barbara Smith, provost at Evergreen State.

"The research shows students in learning communities have higher grades, higher satisfaction rates with the institution," she says. "They also are more involved with the school and tend to have higher graduation rates. It's really pretty amazing."

And that's how a lot of freshmen feel who have used their ingenuity to find out about and then squirm their way into one of these new avenues of learning.

Alfreda Moses was only a freshman when she applied to help do research with an eminent sociologist at the University of Michigan, one of only a few schools with a program to link freshmen with faculty members.

"It's made a difference for me and it's one of the main reasons I came here," Ms. Moses says.

And Jordan Harris, a Preston College freshman at the University of South Carolina says she's already wowed by the difference of being at a small college nestled inside a big university. "It does make a great deal of difference," she says "From the moment I got here, I've never once felt like a number."


(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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