Reinventing the first-year college experience

With an innovative program, American University is equipping first-year students with the tools to succeed in – and outside – the classroom.

Photo by Jeffrey Watts

Priyanka Koliwad anticipated that her transition from high school to college would be rocky. A resident of the Bay Area in Northern California, she was moving across the country to study at American University in Washington, DC, because of its strong international relations program. While she was excited for her new academic challenge, she was nervous to leave her family behind and make new friends.

Those feelings—whether Koliwad knew it or not—are common among young people who make the same leap.

“First-year students are going through such a tremendous transition in terms of where they’re living, who they’re living with and the academic expectations of college,” says Jessica Waters, AU’s dean of undergraduate education and vice provost for academic student services. “When you look at why a student succeeds or doesn’t succeed in the first year, so much of it depends on whether they know where resources are and whether they feel included and connected on campus.”

Photo by Sam Kittner

Koliwad, now a senior, succeeded in her first year, in large part, due to AU’s innovative first-year student experience program.

“What I appreciate about the entire first-year experience is that students aren’t expected to know everything,” says Koliwad, 22. “There are safety nets in place for students to be able to learn and grow and figure out how to become more independent.”

AU began reimagining the experience of all its students in 2015. That process revealed that a change was needed in particular for first-year students, who face unique challenges.

“We looked at both how we think about the curriculum and how the curriculum needs to be challenging, exciting, and really allow for greater social and intellectual exploration among students,” says Fanta Aw, AU’s vice president of undergraduate enrollment, campus life and inclusive excellence.

The result was a program for first-year students that is unique in higher education. All freshmen take the American University Experience, a full-year core curriculum specially designed for students transitioning into their first year of college at AU. The first semester (AUx1) is focused on the transition to college, resources and identity development, while the next (AUx2) examines questions of race, anti-racism, structures of power, and privilege. Each section boasts no more than 19 students; in addition to the instructor, there’s a peer facilitator—an upper-level student who already has taken the course.

Photo by Jeffrey Watts

First-year students also take a complex problems seminar, which is focused on inquiry, teaching students how to tackle critical analysis, examine issues from diverse perspectives and engage with the most pressing challenges of our time. With more than 140 topics, the seminar offers a wide swath of opportunities to think through philosophy, current events, pop culture and politics. Classes range from The West’s Problem with Evil to DNA in the Digital Age. The first-year student experience builds directly into the AU core curriculum, which integrates experiential learning across all four years.

In addition, AU created an advising team that only works with first-year students. The first-year advisors are also adjunct instructors in the School of Education, and they teach the AUx1 classes.

“One of the most significant things we did is pair each of those academic advisors with only 76 students or fewer,” Waters says. “And those same 76 students they’re advising, they’re seeing every single week in the classroom. Our program means that a first-year student is guaranteed to see their first-year advisor 14 times if not more in the first semester, which far exceeds the national average. Nationally, when you look at ratios, you’re typically looking at 300 students to 1 advisor or 350 to 1.”

Koliwad was particularly concerned about finding counseling and mental health resources on campus, and she found her first-year advisor to be extremely supportive.

“I was able to see him whenever I needed. He was active in responding to my emails,” she says. “He helped me create a four-year plan and made sure that the academic and administrative parts of school were not a burden, so I could focus on my health and taking care of myself.”

Mental health issues have become more common among college students in recent years. A 2017 study by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that anxiety and depression are the two most common reasons that students seek mental health services. And that was before the global pandemic. A survey by a Boston University researcher of nearly 33,000 college students in 2020 found that half screened positive for depression and/or anxiety. The survey was administered online during the fall 2020 semester through the Healthy Minds Network.

High school students are facing more pressure than ever to “succeed” in college, and the disconnect and isolation that can stem from social media only adds to the stress, Aw says.

“I don’t doubt that students find the utilities of those tools,” Aw says. “There’s a community that gets built on social media, but it’s a different kind of community. You can be a little bit more anonymous. Everybody seems happy all the time. There is the branded self versus the authentic self. I do think that creates additional pressures on students who feel like, ‘I have to be popular, I have to have x number of friends, and if those things are not in place there must be something not right with me,’” she says. “When in fact there’s a transition, and that transition does take time.”

A key way in which students find community, Aw says, is through active engagement in clubs, organizations, volunteering or the arts. Singing in the AU choir and in an a cappella group was important for Matthew Markay’s assimilation on campus. The 21-year-old junior from northern New Jersey decided to become an AUx peer facilitator after a long meeting with his facilitator when he was a freshman.

“It’s really important for the peer facilitator to be a role model to the underclassmen,” he says. “I’m there for advice if the students need it. I try to relate to them because I was once in their shoes. I know what’s it’s like to be a freshman. The best advice I give to [them] is just get involved. Try something new. The community is there, you just have to reach out and find it.”

That’s a belief shared by AU president Sylvia Burwell.

“Universities that focus on creating a sense of community and belonging find that students are better able to work through their challenges and stress,” she says. “There are many reasons that community is at the heart of the American University experience and a core pillar of our strategic plan. But one of the most important is that community is a source of well-being and resiliency that helps our students thrive during their academic career and throughout their lives.”

Both Markay and Koliwad say their AUx experience has changed their career plans. Markay became a sociology major after his conversation with his peer facilitator, and Koliwad plans to focus on advocacy in policy through education as she pursues graduate school after earning her bachelor’s degree.

“It’s not a question of whether every student we admit to AU is academically capable; they are,” Waters says. “It’s a question of experience and if they feel like they have the support and resources they need from day one.”

Priyanka Koliwad and Matthew Markay are proof that the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”  

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