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The new First Year Experience: smoothing the transition from high school to college-

By: Emily Hewlings
Transformation appears to be a major theme for this academic year. Like many other departments on campus, the Office of Student Engagement has made some considerable changes to the way they welcome new students this year.
In previous years, Orientation and Connections, a required weekly course for first-year students, were an essential part of the college experience for new students during the first semester. These programs gave those students the opportunity to get to know their peers, to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of Goucher, and to better understand the expectations for pursuing a liberal arts education.
Orientation usually started at the beginning of the summer and carried over to the first two weeks of the academic year, when Connections picked up and ran for the duration of the first semester. The programs operated under different leaders, and had different groups of students as mentors. Members of the orientation committee were referred to as Orientation Leaders, and the ones leading Connections on a weekly basis were known as Peer Facilitators.
According to Roshelle Kades, who serves as the Assistant Director for Student Outreach, such programs don’t exist for new students at Goucher this year. The Office of Student Engagement revamped the two programs by merging the two into a single one.
“The whole program is called the First Year Experience,” Kades said. “Starting in June through December, it’s all First Year Experience.”
The initial goals of the former programs remain just as important during First Year Experience, or FYE, Kades said, but the newly redesigned initiative was implemented with the intention of allowing the students’ transition into college run more smoothly.
“We didn’t simply combine two programs and smush them together and say, ‘Great, we have one new thing’,” Christine Krieger, Associate Director of Student Engagement said. “It really is truly a brand new, re-imagined, re-envisioned type of program that is designed to meet students’ needs at different points in the semester and before they even arrive, to help them find their sense of place at Goucher and figure out how they can best connect to the community.”
While FYE now accommodates the responsibilities from both Orientation and Connections, Kades said a distinction remains between what students do during Orientation Week and what they discuss during the course portion. The structure of the overall program is similar to what has been done in the past, except the transition from one affair to another should no longer be as stressful, Kades said.
One significant change that came out of the merge was the elimination of separate leaders. A single group of twenty-eight students called First Year Mentors now runs the entire program with guidance from Kades and Krieger. Stacy Cooper Patterson, the Associate Dean of Students for Community Life, helped supervise the orientation part of the program.
“It definitely felt important for the first year and transfer students to have one student in addition to their R.A. who they are really looking at as a mentor and as a connector to what Goucher is about and any support or resources that they need,” Kades said. “They can start building that relationship June 1st and continue to deepen that relationship through December.”
Krieger agreed, adding that having a single person to accompany new students through the entire process made “much more sense,” largely because the students themselves are already going through many changes.
Annabeth Lucas ’16, who serves as chair of FYE, said that she worked as both Orientation Leader and Peer Facilitator during her sophomore year, and views the merge to be advantageous not only for new students, but also the mentors.
“A benefit from the merge was a fluidity between Orientation and classes,” Lucas said. “Students need not depend on multiple students for various concerns or questions, but rather one peer mentor.”
Lucas likes the fact that she gets to focus on only one group of students this year. When she worked in separate roles prior to the merge, she found that her attention to her students’ needs “were almost split.”
As a first year student, Mina Altman ’19 said that having a First Year Mentor has been beneficial so far, as her mentor is someone she can go to directly for getting her questions answered. Altman initially didn’t know how to switch classes; rather than trying to find the Registrar’s Office, she sought her mentor’s help, and was able to get the issue resolved quickly.
As was done in the past, First Year Mentors were chosen based on their application and interview performance. Kades pointed out that what was different this time around was that students were examined based on not only their ability to lead during Orientation, but also for the duration of the semester.
“We were looking for students who would be as good at the high energy, one-hour meets during Orientation Week and equally good at having those discussions and setting lesson plans and leading the course,” Kades said.
Once selected, the mentors played an active role in helping to shape the current layout of the FYE program, particularly the course aspect, Kades added. Students will still discuss certain topics that had been covered in previous years, such as on-campus resources and adjusting to the college lifestyle. Since the purpose of the change was to better support new students, this semester will focus more on identity exploration and relationships.
Kades said that there will be two sessions about identity exploration and racial equity, and that such discussions will revolve around self-reflection and awareness of different perspectives.
As a Peer Facilitator last year, FYE co-chair Denia Carter ’16 said that she came out of the experience feeling that the topic of diversity hadn’t been addressed accordingly. Certain activities designed to raise awareness about privilege and inequality that had been used over the last few years neglected to cover the issue on a deeper level, Carter said.
“We want people to define their previous knowledge, to acknowledge their preconceptions and challenge themselves,” she explained. “We want to get you thinking.”
To emphasize the importance of meaningful conversations generated by varying perspectives, the Office of Student Engagement got rid of the large group settings, as well as the idea that groups should be formed based on a common feature, such as geographic area or residential hall.
Patterson said that while the previous model had some strengths, it excluded variation among students. Each FYE group now consists of thirteen to eighteen students who were randomly assigned—except for transfer and gap year students, both of which have their own course. Another change was switching the program from Tuesday nights to Monday nights.
Allison Sklarew ’19 said that she appreciated the amount of effort the FYE program put into helping new students acclimate to Goucher.
“I think it helped me socially,” Sklarew said. “My FYE meetings were really great since you could ask your mentor lots of questions and not just sit at a table by yourself, since you didn’t know many people at that point.”
Sklarew also appreciates being a part of the same group during the weekly FYE course that she had during Orientation Week, as she already knew “some friendly faces.”
Surbhi ‘19 said that she had a positive experience with the FYE program as well.
“[As] an international student from India, I was unsure of how I was going to settle in a college about 8,000 miles [away] from my house,” she said. “All of these fears were nipped in the bud, thanks to the amazing orientation organized by the college.”
Surbhi added, “Apart from familiarizing ourselves to the campus, we also got to know each other.”
While the FYE program remains as a work in progress—the Office of Student Engagement will continue to make improvements every year, Krieger said—Kades envisions the current structure as being more community-oriented.
“I think the benefit of it is that, honestly, building this structure for our new students through the orientation and first semester process will make their experience at Goucher better because they will have that ability and that time to really settle in and to find the people that they need to be successful,” she said.

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