Schools help frosh fit in...Programs give students many opportunities to bond

by By Linda Kulman

>From USN&WR’s America’s Best Colleges 2001p. Scott Collins couldn’t wait to go to college. That is, until his high school graduation in June, when he began to “get really, really scared” that he wouldn’t make any friends at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the fall. “I thought I was going to spend all my time alone E-mailing my friends back home,” Collins says.p. Now the Raytown, Mo., sophomore concedes he need not have worried. Collins enrolled in a relatively new program at MU with 17 other freshmen, who took three to four classes together and lived in the same residence hall. Far from spending all his time alone, Collins and his fellow students sought one another out in their gargantuan lecture halls and pushed together tables in the cafeteria so they could sit 15 to 20 strong. “We called it traveling in packs,” he says. “You really do connect because you have common interests.”p. The University of Missouri-Columbia is not the only school these days trying to allay the freshman jitters. Within the past decade, a majority of colleges and universities have designed programs to help first-year students take root. While the specifics vary, most of themstarting with orientationhelp students make fast friends and connect quickly with upperclassmen and adults they can turn to for help or advice. At large institutions, where it can be easy for kids to get lost in the shuffle, many programs are intended to shrink the schools psychologically. Some institutions are coming up with new educational models, like the residential learning community Collins took part in, in the hope of making learning a 24-7 experience. And a growing number teach nuts-and-bolts skills, from time management to what to underline in a textbook.p. “The goal is not to wait until [students] are in trouble,” says Karen Levin Coburn, assistant vice chancellor for students at Washington University in St. Louis and coauthor of Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years (HarperCollins, 1997, $13). “It’s to try to take a more proactive, preventive approach. [Freshmen] need to be independent, but they are 18 years old, and they need safety nets.”p. Some institutions have always done a good job making freshmen feel at home. At the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, for instance, first-year students have long been greeted within minutes of pulling up to their new dorm by a swarm of upperclassmen who take the newcomer in hand and make quick work of the luggage. And for some 40 years, each of the eight residence halls at Rice University in Houston has had live-in faculty so that caring adults are integral to the everyday lives of students.p. But now a number of forces are converging to inspire similar efforts at other schools. For one thing, boomer parents tend to be savvy consumers, and as tuition costs rise, so do expectations that the institution won’t let Junior slip through the cracks. Also, interest in student attrition has picked up among university administrators. Only about 60 percent of students who start at four-year institutions earn a degree, and more than half of those who drop out don’t make it to their sophomore year. Even if they leave later, says Vincent Tinto, author of Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition (University of Chicago Press, 1993, $25), their reasons typically have roots in their freshman year. As recruiting has grown more costly, it has become a financial imperative to hang on to the students who enroll.p. According to Noel-Levitz, a higher-education consulting firm specializing in student recruitment and retention, private institutions spent an average of $1,624 per student on recruitment in 1997, and four-year public institutions spent an average of $433.p. Administrators also believe freshmen need a helping hand because college is more complicated to navigate than in past decades. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, for instance, the curriculum was not sliced into so many subdisciplines, and your peers were pretty much like the people you went to high school with. Schools acted in loco parentis, employing dorm mothers and curfews to keep behavior in check, and faculty tended to be more involved in their students’ lives.p. Recent concern over binge drinking has given schools yet another impetus to provide students with alternative ways of socializing. “The student who feels connected is probably not the one who gets drunk every weekend,” says Coburn. “We’re not going back to in loco parentis, but, on the other hand, we do have to take more responsibility for student safety.”p. While falling in with a group of pals used to be largely a haphazard affair, now schools are more likely to barrage freshmen with opportunities to bond. Even before Michio Brunner, now 20, started orientation at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., the Manhattanite got a jump-start, meeting other freshmen on a canoe trip down the Colorado River. “You’re nervous that everyone is going to be smarter than you,” says Brunner. But somewhere between floating down the river and jumping off rocks, he realized, “Wow. You guys are just like me.” When he returned to school, Brunner says he felt “almost like a sophomore looking at freshmen because I wasn’t nervous at all.”p. Like Pomona, a growing number of schools are finding that camping trips help break the ice. Brian Kunz, assistant director of the outdoor programs office at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H., which has been sponsoring pre-frosh trips since 1935, suggests that what helps students connect is the concentrated amount of time they spend together away from the distractions of phones, TVs, and other people.p. Also, he says, “The outdoors is unpredictable, so people are a little off balance and more open to the situation and each other.” Ditto for the daylong community service projects more schools are offering as part of orientation. In these settings, starting a conversation with a fellow student “doesn’t take a lot of social capital,” says Gay Victoria, director of the Colorado College Center for Community Service in Colorado Springs.p. Duke University in Durham, N.C., is trying another tactic to help freshmen feel that they belong. Five years ago, the school began housing its 1,600 first-year students on a separate part of the campus from upperclassmen. While skeptics argue that segregating the new kids only reinforces the “dazed and confused” aspect of being a freshman, sophomore Heather Oh doesn’t see it that way. Coming from a high school class of 35, she says she felt “protected.” Even going the 1? miles on the bus to and from the main campus had its upside for her. “You would meet people,” Oh says. At night, “that five-minute bus ride gave you the sense that you were going home.”p. Other schools are making architectural adjustments to foster a sense of community. At Bentley College outside Boston, senior Celeste Hopkins recalls that when she was a freshman, what is now the coffee shop filled with comfy chairs was just a parking lot. Hopkins studies in the coffee shop or arranges to meet friends there late at night. “It’s homey,” she says. “It brings students together.”p. Schools also are bolstering the role of academic advisers. At Washington University, for instance, students are offered not just one person to turn to but a whole web of support. Freshmen in the arts and sciences are assigned to an adviser they stay with for four years. Those advisees meet once a week during the first semester to discuss potential pitfalls like not getting enough sleep. The group also has an upperclassman, or “peer,” adviser who plans social activities like pumpkin-carving in the country and functions as “a low-threshold person to approach,” says Joel Anderson, an assistant dean and assistant philosophy professor who has been an adviser for the past three years. Sophomore Gilles Bissonnette, a varsity soccer player who is pre-med and a history major, found the multilayered system there eased his transition to college. “I played soccer and I worked hard in high school, and then when I got here I played more soccer and had to work harder,” Bissonnette says. “It takes figuring out how to manage your time. There was no shortage of advice.” Hoping to share with others what he’s learned, Bissonnette has become a peer adviser this year.p. At some schools, learning the ropes is a for-credit course. One of the most popular, called University 101, was founded at the University of South Carolina in the 1970s and has been adopted by colleges and universities around the country. The class teaches students a range of survival skills, from the educational, such as how to do research in the libraryto broader life lessons, including how topractice safe sex. Julie Johnson, a sophomore at USC from Palestine, Texas, found some of the instruction usefulbut not all. Although after the class she was more confident in the library, she felt that the alcohol-awareness part of the course already had been drilled into her in high school.p. Even as schools extend a hand to freshmen socially and emotionally, they are working to help them connect academically. Washington University’s Anderson asks his students to share one thing they’ve learned in a class each week with the group. “It’s to establish that academics and intellectual life [are] part of the everyday experience,” he says. “Very often, the dorm is [considered to be] an intellectual-free zone.”p. Learning communities like the one Scott Collins enrolled in at MU have gained in popularity over the past 15 years. At its most basic, a learning community is a cluster of courses, often linked by an interdisciplinary theme, that brings together a common group of students. But many schools are adding a residential component, too.p. Students who participate in the program do better academically and are more involved in campus activities, say administrators. As a result, more are making it to their sophomore year. For the 30 percent of freshmen who participate in one of MU’s learning communities the retention rate is about 90 percent, compared with 82 percent for students who aren’t involved.p. As successful as these innovative academic programs may be, plugging into school traditions also is key to helping students feel they belong. Notre Dame sophomore Katie Ostrowski believes that the spirit surrounding the “Fighting Irish” football team and the school’s Catholic foundation help knit together the student body. Ostrowski, a nonfan when she enrolled, says now she wouldn’t dream of missing a game. She enjoyed one of the theology classes all students are required to take because it helped her understand the history behind her faith. She feels at home with the school’s Catholic mission. “I like that they are trying to instill morality in the students,” she says.p. Even at tradition-steeped Notre Dame, administrators have sought to fine-tune what works. One program they added recently is a series of retreats for freshmen to give first-year students an opportunity to reflect on their spirituality, goals, and relationships.p. More schools are introducing rituals in the hope of instilling in students a stronger sense of loyalty to the institution and their class. Washington University, for instance, has begun a new ceremony that takes place following the opening-night convocation during orientation. Faculty decked out in academic robes and parents line the pathway to the main quad, each adult holding a glow stick. Freshmen walk the paththe only time the students and their parents come together until commencement, which is held in the same spot. The experience made a lasting impression on Liz Wetterhahn. Says the sophomore, “It pointed out to me that I was a college student, and no longer in high school.”p.

Friday, Sept. 1, 2000

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