What is a First-Year Experience?
With college acceptances comes invitations to programs that are part of every freshman first-year experience.
Most of the schools that I have visited have a series of programs to help entering freshmen, and sometimes transfer students, become engaged in college.. Student affairs experts that I have met since launching Educated Quest have told me that a college community needs to engage every freshman within the first six to eight weeks after they move on campus. Most of the programming takes place much earlier. All of it comprises the First-Year Experience
When I was in college freshman orientation took place in May, after all decisions were due. I took placement tests, picked courses with no help from anyone (a list came in the mail), ate lunch and listened to a boring speech by a dean. The entire freshman class was there; most could come since practically everyone came from in state.
All that is no more.
Today orientations are done in smaller groups, students get a real orientation (sometimes a night in the residence hall). Their parents get one, too. They learn about college life (alcoholism is one of the more important topics,so is choosing a roommate, among other topics), and the orientation leaders try to teach parents not to worry. Course registration and placement tests are done online. Students get to meet with an academic advisor, though the discussion is low pressure. Technology has made a once-somber affair more interesting.
Fall orientation, when students move in, also has no placement tests. Incoming students may attend various sessions to learn about academic programs, student organizations, even college traditions. A convocation, a formal welcome led by the president of the school, is also a part of everyone’s introduction to college. Take this seriously; the president and faculty often attend in academic regalia, as they do for graduation. Convocation is a meant to be a formal beginning to a college education.
Another part of a first-year experience is a class book. Schools as large as Ohio State, with more than 7,000 freshman, assign a best-selling book for the entire class to read, usually one with moral or ethical issues to encourage critical thinking. The book becomes part of group discussions at the fall orientation just before classes begin. It may also become a part of freshmen seminars, small classes led by a professor or qualified administrator.
The seminar courses within a first-year experience might be in a “University 101” format where students are given assignments which force them to use the school’s resources such as the library, museums, arts facilities, sometimes a writing center, career services or advising center. They may also be topical classes where the subject matter is of mutual interest to the students and the faculty member. Courses about Harry Potter, global warming, world politics and local history, among others, make up the topics.
The small group that forms the seminar class, usually fewer than 20 students, may also continue beyond that seminar. They might be students who also live in the same learning community–a group of classmates with a shared interest–in the residence hall. They might have similar class schedules, so that they can form study groups.
The overall purpose of the First-Year Experience, the orientations, social events and seminars, is to help students to make friends and learn how to seek help from peers, faculty and staff when they need it. Hillary Clinton used to say that it takes a village to raise a child. An effective First-Year Experience is quite like that. It takes the talents of student affairs, residence life, faculty members, even continuing students to make it work. A successful First-Year Experience leads to greater student satisfaction and retention. It’s far less expensive for a college or university to keep students happy than it is to replace them.