Setting the Course

The excitement of the first college year can yield doubts and confusion about how to navigate new waters. First Year Experience helps new students find their way.

by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday. Photos by Cindy Davis Meixel, except as credited.

Not so long ago, before the “Me” Decade and the iEverything, immersion into the college environment was a sink-or-swim affair. Parents virtually tossed their teenagers into a whirlpool of campus confusion and, with a kiss and a wave, made tracks for home in the family four-door. A semester’s worth of clothes fit into a small dormitory closet, the only electronic device was a clock radio or calculator, and a 9-inch television at the corner of the desk was as “big-screen” as it got.

Alison R. Erb, a surgical technology student, with Resident Assistant Stephen K. Banke, an emergency medical services student. Erb is part of a Health Sciences living-learning community, which provides activities and a shared living area for first-year students in the School of Health Sciences.

Today’s students, at Pennsylvania College of Technology and universally elsewhere, are anything but portable. Move-in day means multiple trips, maybe even emergency runs to a discount store, to fully stock first-year students for the adventures that lie ahead. All across parking lots outside teeming residence halls, it’s obvious that they carry a lot more baggage – and not just physically – than their colleagues of decades past.

Today's student arrives at college with more than a small closet full of clothing and a few boxes of essentials. Crews of students and employees converge on family vehicles, quickly emptying contents into apartment-bound bins. Photo by Larry D. Kauffman.

There’s still that dizzying swirl of new surroundings, the anxiety over the start of classes, uncertainty about the strangers across the hall, exposure to people unlike any ever met, adjustment to being away from home and meals that are unlike Mom’s.

But there’s so much more: struggles with identity, pressure to succeed, crises of conscience and faith, untold temptations, the paradoxical desire to stand out and fit in. How can anyone stay afloat in such an ocean of stress?

With a lifeline, of course, an SOS known as FYE.

Penn College’s First Year Experience program sprouted in 2005 from the fertile common ground between two parallel initiatives: the administration’s appointment of a committee to improve student retention and the Foundations of Excellence program – a comprehensive self-study that identified (among dozens of other observations) the critical needs of new students.

"We identified what those students need and designed a course to satisfy those needs."

“The impetus was the perception that we could better serve the transitional needs of our specific student population,” said Eugene M. McAvoy, dean of academic services and first year programs. “The students that are attracted to us, to the unique types of degrees that we offer, are not the typical students that you’d find at a liberal-arts institution.”

Additionally, that initial year often corresponds to a period of ongoing brain development and is a time when many young men and women are away from home for the first protracted period in their lives

“The most important part is that we identified what those students need and designed a course to satisfy those needs,” McAvoy said. “We can easily monitor whether we are meeting them – and if we’re not – make the adjustments that we need to make.”

The ensuing discussions included interviews about the major stumbling blocks to students’ success in their first year after high school, and the findings were as varied as one would expect at a college with more than 100 academic majors in eight distinct schools.

Kelly R. Hebert, a pre-radiography student from Wellsboro, and Erin E. Shade, a human services student from Bridgewater, N.J., commune in a lounge in Dauphin Hall, a residence hall set aside for first-year students.

There were the usual suspects, hardly news to anyone who’s packed off a son or daughter to quad-side quarters. Challenges of balancing time and a checkbook abide, as do homesickness, the debatable survival of long-distance relationships, and the tug of war between homework and hobbies.

“Among the other things we found, however, was a lack of familiarity with college processes – not knowing, for instance, that you have to physically withdraw from a class rather than just stop attending,” McAvoy said. “That can have a huge effect on a student’s GPA.”

There also was a hesitance about communicating with faculty, he said, even though Penn College classes are among the smallest anywhere. Breaking through that wall to greater understanding is seen as a basic step toward broader success at college.

“More than 40 years of national data show that attention to the first-year experience improves academic performance and allows more student identification with – and commitment to – the institution,” he said. “Increased satisfaction with the college leads to increased crystallization of a student’s academic major.”

McAvoy cited the groundbreaking research by John N. Gardner, founder of The National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience, whose work has found great value in students’ embrace of their new surroundings

Travis J. Veronsky, a first-year student in the electrical technology major, chats with friends in Dauphin Hall.

To better acclimate students to their Penn College home, as well as to fine-tune their academic and critical-thinking skills, an FYE class was forged in the crucible of a proactive administration.

The class is a potpourri of lectures, discussions, field trips and other activities that provide students with a road map for the journey ahead. It has had phenomenal buy-in from faculty in all academic areas of Penn College – by the time it became required in the Fall 2011 semester, 60 faculty and staff members had signed on to teach, among them college President Davie Jane Gilmour, who officially returned to the classroom for the first time in nearly three decades.

Those faculty members, veterans and newcomers alike – some of them parents of college-age children – all bring their own voices (and their candid suggestions) to the mix, McAvoy said.

First-year students have not as willingly recognized the importance of the class, just as they occasionally resist taking general education courses that are perceived as bothersome detours along their career path. Some students, though, have seized the opportunities the course provides.

A veteran student helps wheel in a first-year student's residence hall essentials, not least of which is a batch of Mom's homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Among McAvoy’s own former FYE students is April M. Tucker, who enrolled as a pre-nursing student and recently transferred into an applied human services major. She arrived at Penn College from her 200-ish graduating class of Laurel Highlands High School in southwestern Pennsylvania, toting a reading disability and the cautious blessing of teachers who thought she was being overly optimistic to land at Pennsylvania’s premier technical college.

“I liked the challenge,” said an unfazed Tucker, who ended her first year with A’s, B’s and an obvious sense of accomplishment. Much of her success was due to self-discipline, but she admits that FYE gave her some valuable tools.

“My first anatomy test, I didn’t know how much information I needed to know,” she said. “I learned very quickly that I needed more than a day or two to study.”

Brimming with confidence and a genuine desire to make the best of her college years, Tucker continues to turn challenges into opportunities. She misses her family, but finds that distance can bring everyone closer. She misses the sisterhood of her marching band color guard days, but hopes to find similar satisfaction with a Penn College sorority.

“I love school,” Tucker said. From meeting rigorous course work head-on, to enjoying the diversity of a student body that isn’t like high school, “I really enjoy college."

On move-in day, Karissa Kulp, a new student in the pre-dental hygiene major, handles her fish, Blueberry, with care.

Kevin E. Brookhart, a former Presidential Student Ambassador, also learned the importance of meeting faculty expectations.

“Although it seems rather simple, I feel like many students, including myself, look past the very simple concept of getting good grades in any class,” he said.

“Give the professors what they want and what they ask for, and you’ll be almost guaranteed success in any class,” was his advice, proffered shortly before his May graduation. “Abide by the syllabus, turn in all assignments, and ask the professor for help after class or during office hours if you’re confused.

“Success in college – academically, socially and professionally – lies on a very simple concept,” added Brookhart, who has earned associate degrees in diesel technology and heavy construction equipment technology: technician emphasis, and a bachelor’s in technology management since he transferred to Penn College in 2008. “Work hard and make smart choices. That’s really all it takes to succeed.”

Another Presidential Student Ambassador – Alissa J. Harris, of Chalfont – can also be counted among those who welcomed the FYE program and parlayed what she learned into lasting benefit

“I learned where everything on campus was and learned so much about the Tutoring Center and Smarthinking (the college’s online tutoring program),” said Harris, enrolled in applied health studies: occupational therapy assistant concentration. “To this day, I know people in my major that have no idea what Smarthinking is and how useful it can be for helping with math problems, or submitting papers for revisions and returned in about 24 hours!

“If I had not taken this class, I would not have known about it,” she added, “and would never have utilized it to its full potential.”

FYE also paved the way toward making friends and meeting other students hoping to be accepted into her Health Sciences major, shared Career Services skills such as interviews with employers and resume-writing, and introduced her to Student Government Association and campus organizations.

“I believe I really benefited from this class, and I did urge high school kids – before it was even a mandatory class – to take it,” Harris said. “It really helped me when it came time for learning how I study and how to take efficient notes.”

The long-term value of Penn College’s FYE efforts will become clearer and clearer as the track record grows; even at the pilot level, though, McAvoy said improved retention and academic success was found with a statistically small group of students.

“The big thing to remember about FYE is the holistic view of the student, respecting the entirety of the individual, reminding them that they’re getting a college degree and not a vocational certification,” McAvoy said. “We recognize that learning cannot be divorced from the environment – physical, emotional, cultural – in which our students live.”

A continual work in progress, like the very students that Penn College devotedly serves.

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