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Elective program helps put new students at ease

When Kara Quinn began her education at UConn last year, she didn't know how to use the library or other resources here. With help from the First Year Experience Program, she found her way around effectively and made new friends.

"I wanted to make sure I got off on the right foot here, so I took the learning skills course," says Quinn, 19, of Griswold, a psychology major. "I also wanted to meet new people and branch out. It's a little scary when you first get here. The campus is so big. It was nice to be with others who didn't have a clue either."

New UConn students, like Quinn, don't have to be overwhelmed by the transition from high school or another college any more. The First Year Experience Program, a program of elective courses, offers them opportunities to get to know faculty, staff, other students and the resources at the University; it is emerging into a successful component of their education.

"The whole overarching goal of the First Year Experience Program is to make UConn seem a little bit smaller and a lot more friendly than it might first appear to new students," says John C. Bennett Jr., director of the program and an associate professor of mechanical engineering. "The courses are designed to help students get a better, more enjoyable and less stressful education."

Quinn says she found the course invaluable.

"A great thing was that they took us to the library and career services. I didn't know how to use the library or how to get an internship - I didn't even know where to start," she says.

The program for new and transfer students started last fall, in response to a need for more student support when they first arrive on campus, and to the University's strategic goal of placing greater emphasis on undergraduate education.

"When we first introduced the program in 1996, the participating faculty were enthused. But the time frame was very short and fewer students signed up than the faculty were expecting," says Judith Meyer, interim vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction. "In engineering and the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, where the faculty and staff advisors understood the program well, a larger proportion of entering students enrolled. This year, with more advance information, a much higher proportion of students throughout the University are taking First Year courses."

Three types of one-credit courses are offered: university learning skills courses, first year student/faculty seminars and freshmen interest groups. In the first year, about 10 percent of the incoming class participated in courses offered by about 15 staff and faculty. This year, about 20 percent of the incoming class has signed up, with more than 30 faculty and staff involved.

"Professional staff who work directly with students have been particularly eager to get involved," Bennett says. "I truly believe every student ought to consider taking one of these courses, and will benefit from it. The courses maintain their focus on the students' transition into UConn and the use of its resources. They are not general discussions of resources associated with a generic college or university."

The program has changed slightly from its first year, but the courses remain elective.

"Fundamentally, these are courses we want students to seek to be involved in, not be required to take. If a student doesn't see the value in taking it, the student won't get as much out of it," Bennett says.

For this year's students, faculty improved course descriptions and mission statements to better define the courses. Making this information available to advisors and incoming students prior before summer orientation sessions helped increase the percentage of students choosing to enroll, Bennett says.

The learning skills courses have been the most popular, allowing up to 25 students at a time to become familiar with resources and acquire or improve skills that will help their performance in other courses. Topics include time management, study and test-taking skills, learning styles, healthy lifestyles and career choices.

Bennett already has plans to make improvements for next year's program. For example, he hopes to increase the number of freshman interest group courses, now called Learning Communities, with additional clusters of courses focused on specific fields or careers - such as engineering and medicine - based mainly on interdisciplinary subjects, he says. He also is seeking more faculty participation in the program.

"It has gone reasonably well for a start-up program," Bennett says. "Students are very positive about it and have indicated they feel the courses have addressed important issues that will make a difference in their education."

Renu Sehgal-Aldrich