Elmhurst College In Depth

A Good Start

A pilot program combines the intellectual and the personal, and represents an ambitious rethinking of the first-year student experience at Elmhurst.

It’s just a few days into the Fall Term, and already the class discussion in the first-year seminar on Global Climate Change is getting personal.

Personal, that is, in the best sense of the word.

All around this classroom in Daniels Hall, hands are popping up, arguments are being articulated, questions are being raised. When the discussion turns to the presidential election (still in the future on this afternoon), one of the students asks a practical, and personal, question. “Where do I go to register to vote?” he wants to know.

Up at the front of the room, Ian Crone, an assistant dean of students, moves to field the question. Crone is leading the seminar in tandem with Rich Schultz, an assistant professor of geography. All you need to do is stop by the student affairs office, Crone says. The discussion moves on to other topics—a mixture of the practical and the profound: making sense of the assigned reading; creating a service-learning project to meet the course requirements; navigating and evaluating the competing and contradictory claims made about climate change in popular and scholarly sources.

The mix of personal and intellectual engagement on display in this classroom is a hallmark of a program that represents an ambitious rethinking of the first-year student experience at Elmhurst.A pilot program in its second year, the first-year initiative couples the new seminars with an intensive orientation called Big Questions: What Will You Stand For? The seminars are full-credit courses lasting an entire term on topics that leap across the boundaries of academic disciplines and address contemporary issues. “It’s a class like no other,” says Alzada Tipton, the vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. “We ask them to look both inward and outward.”

The orientation lasts a week in late August. Both seminar and orientation introduce students to the power and possibilities of the liberal arts, challenge them to explore issues of meaning and values, and encourage them to make connections between what they do in the classroom and what they might do in the larger world. This year, 140 freshmen elected to participate in the new first-year experience. The College will extend the pilot program to include all freshmen next year, and is considering a similar program for transfer students.

In many respects, Global Climate Change with Schultz and Crone is typical of the new seminars. The pedagogical process combines the familiar kinds of academic work—exams, assigned readings, research papers, and the like—with less conventional methods. One day in early fall, Schultz and Crone led a discussion of mass-media-generated “scares” like the y2k phenomenon, and how savvy media consumers can evaluate claims of impending doom. They also talked to the students about the variety of campus offices and centers that serve them, from the Wellness Center to the international study office. They then gave the class an assignment that somehow managed to link the two disparate subjects. The students were to break into teams, visit an assigned office on campus, interview a staffer, and deliver a report on the office in class. The report was to take the form of a TV news segment about a looming crisis or social problem, and how the campus office is addressing it.

The assignment, Crone explains, served twin purposes. It introduced the students to campus resources while getting them to think critically about the material they encounter in the mass media. “One of the challenges for us is to connect students with the resources on campus that can help them to succeed, and to do it in a way that links to the curricular content.”

Crone’s teaching partner adds that developing critical thinking skills is a priority of the seminar. “We want the students to walk away from this class more informed and better able to process information,” says Schultz. “They should be able to evaluate the data and argue a point.”

If the seminars are a different kind of college class, a key functional difference is the collaboration between student-affairs professionals like Crone and faculty members like Schultz. Each of the eight seminars offered this year was taught similarly in tandem across organizational lines. The technique is part of an effort to offer students integrated experiences that address them not as intellects alone but as complete individuals, that couple academic rigor with personal development.
 
For Schultz, the team-teaching approach offers insights and added value for students and faculty alike. “I’ve learned how important the student-affairs staff is in terms of student success,” he says. “They help students to make the transition into college, to get involved, but also to know their limitations.”
 
Dean Tipton agrees. “The student-affairs professionals think in very sophisticated ways about student development. They can help the student consider how he or she wants to be engaged in college.”  

The bottom-line goal of the program is straightforward: to make it more likely that individual students will prosper in college, intellectually, socially, and even morally. “One of the things students take away from programs like this is simply that there are a lot of people on campus who can help them,” says Michael Lindberg, an associate professor of geography and director of the first-year seminars.

Similar programs are becoming common on campuses as a way for colleges to better integrate new students into the campus community and foster their long-term success. Elmhurst’s program is distinguished by its marriage of the academic, the personal, and the ethical.

It begins just before classes start in August, with the Big Questions orientation. The schedule is a full one; it features not only the traditional introductions and sessions on student organizations and conduct, but also community service projects and multilayered discussions of assigned readings. (It also has built-in time for laser tag and mini-golf.) “We cover both social and academic components,” says Desiree Collado, assistant dean of students and director of student success. “We address the basic transition issues—where students will live and how they’ll make friends. But we also have meaningful discussions about common readings. It creates an environment for learning that carries over into the academic year.”

The students go through the orientation in eighteen-member cohorts, and complete the first-year seminar with the same small group. The professor and the student-affairs professional who will co-lead the seminar also are present during orientation, and the faculty member becomes the students’ academic advisor. Together, the orientation and the seminar give students a powerful head start on college life, and an immediate set of partners in learning. “Because of the time we spent in Big Questions, we’re a little closer to each other,” says Emily Mohney, a student in the Global Climate Change seminar. “We know each other and we can share ideas.”

The program’s emphasis on values and personal engagement is evident in some of the orientation’s active-learning exercises. One, called StarPower, is designed to get students thinking about power and privilege in society. Each of the eighteen students was given five colored chips, with each color worth a different number of points. The students were then split into three groups, based on the number of points they owned. 
The group of students starting with the most points was given the power to set some of the rules of the game that followed; but all of the students could try to advance from one group to another by trading chips and increasing their point total. As 
the negotiating and trading continued, some students moved from one group to another while others didn’t.

The exercise produced animated discussions about the ethical use of power and about the ability to overcome disadvantages in life. “One of our goals is to get students to think critically and to act ethically,” Collado explains.

The College has tracked the progress of participating students. According to Lindberg, the research shows that the students who have gone through the first-year experience have earned higher grades and been more involved in campus life than their peers who pursued the traditional first-year program. “The students tell us that the seminars prepare them for all their classes, and provide them with a good understanding of what’s expected of them in college.”

Tipton says one of the values of the first-year experience is the way it helps students to make connections. “You go through this intensive orientation where you’re exploring questions of value and getting to know each other in deep ways. Then you’re in the first-year seminar with the same people approaching a common intellectual topic. You have a chance to really get to know both the students and the faculty.”

In December, the faculty voted to offer the new program on a pilot basis to every freshman next year. Another vote will be required before the program can be implemented as a permanent academic feature at Elmhurst. The faculty’s ultimate decision is not preordained. Lindberg says that faculty concerns center less on the pedagogical basis of the seminars than on simple logistics. “It’s going to be a real challenge to offer thirty sections of first-year seminars,” he says. “They want to know, ‘How are we going to pull this off?’”

The students who have been involved in the pilot program, says Lindberg, have little doubt that it is worth the effort. In fact, they have emerged as some of its best advocates. Last spring, several students made presentations on the new orientation and seminars to a meeting of the full faculty. “They did more than anyone to convince our colleagues that this is a worthwhile effort,” Lindberg says.

Jordan Rollins, a first-year student who took the Global Climate Change seminar last term, summarizes the program’s advantages succinctly. “I had the chance to get acquainted with the College,” he says, “and I learned a lot about the liberal arts and why they’re important.”

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