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First things first

Nov. 2, 2004

By Susan Green

Starting college can be overwhelming. Moving into residence halls, meeting roommates, registering for classes, finding your way around campus and checking out the social scene can be exciting, fun and scary for many first-year students.

Research has shown that in order for students to thrive, they need to fit in socially as well as academically. Ohio University's orientation process and first-year experience programs are designed to help students address issues important to their academic success and to introduce them to the rich campus life they are about to embrace.

This is the third story in a series about the first-year experience.

The challenges of freedom

With precollege and orientation distant memories, many first-year students are reveling in their independence.

To help students navigate between personal freedom and their new responsibilities, the university encourages first-year students to enroll in "The University Experience," part of the institution's extended orientation program. Enrollment in the two-credit course is on a voluntary basis, and open to students of all majors. But it's particularly helpful to those who haven't decided on a major.

Commonly known as UC 115, the course challenges students to examine their assumptions about majors and careers and encourages them to explore paths and possibilities that may not have occurred to them. It also helps students adjust to their new surroundings and champions them to develop a commitment to academic excellence and personal responsibility.

"The difference between high school and college is as vast as the difference between Single-A Baseball and the major leagues," says Bill Kimok.

Kimok, an archivist and records manager in Alden Library, is one of the many non-faculty administrators who voluntarily teach UC 115. He's also one of the program's biggest fans.

"Many students are not prepared for what it takes to be a freshman. It's a tough transition," he says. "I'm here to not only help them with academics, but with other issues as well."

The University Experience was created in the 1970s when colleges began looking at how the first-year experience related to retention and academic success.

According to Director of First Year Programs Char Rae, UC 115 has grown from 8 sections offered in the 1970s to 45 sections offered this year. She says the course has evolved over the years to include an emphasis on critical thinking, pragmatic skills such as time management, the value of diversity and activities that involve students with the campus community. Additionally, students gain an understanding of the university's policies and procedures.

For instance, a series of assignments entitled "Up Close and Personal" puts students in touch with career services counselors, writing tutors, their professors and faculty advisors. It also encourages students to participate in campus life by attending arts and athletic events and lectures and to take advantage of volunteer opportunities.

"There's a socialization aspect to this as well," Rae says. "Immersion in campus life helps them develop the social and interpersonal skills they need to function in this environment."

Peer instructors are particularly helpful with this process since they're major sources of information to the students and not much older than them. Rae says she began pairing peer instructors with regular instructors three years ago in response to the number of students who found UC 115 helpful and who, in turn, wanted to offer something to first-year students. This fall 20 peer instructors are co-teaching the course.

"Students really respond to the peer instructor," says Andrea Gibson, director of research communications, who teaches one of the sections.

Instructors of UC 115 are often seen as less threatening than professors of larger, more formal classes.

"I get the impression that a lot of their other classes are large lecture classes," Gibson adds. "But a class like this is a nice balance. It gives them an opportunity to engage with each other."

Gibson thinks it's a good idea to help students understand the issues they need to think about while in college: Good academic habits, family issues, social issues and money management.

Clearly, students are faced with a multitude of choices when they enter college. But courses like UC 115 gives students the information they need to make these choices and to become good citizens of the campus community.

Susan Green is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.

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