Photo of First Year Experience peer mentors Preston Countryman (left) and Gabriel Cervantes discuss University 101 with student Rachelle Ruggles
Engaging First Year Students

They may have thought it was a parlor trick when he started. David Eaton, a CSU, Chico anthropology professor giving a guest lecture, was methodically learning the names of 18 University 101 students seated around a table. When he finished and was able to run through them flawlessly, left to right and right to left, the students clapped and shook their heads in disbelief. Eaton wouldn’t have any of it. “This isn’t hard,” he said calmly, silencing the applause. “Whatever you turn your mind to, you can do.”

Audience in hand, Eaton commenced a sort of academic boot camp about doing serious research, alternately pushing students (“Don’t take the author’s word for it—read the original source material”) and letting them in on trade secrets (“Use Google Scholar … my friends, this is a miracle”). After an hour-long intellectual workout, Eaton’s message was clear (with apologies to the U.S. Army): University is the hardest job you’ll ever love.

University 101—the class hundreds of freshmen take to acquaint them with college life—is being transformed from an introduction to an immersion. Chico State’s three-year-old First Year Experience Program, through University 101 and other courses and initiatives, is challenging new students to get involved—immediately, not eventually—as scholars and engaged citizens in the community.

“Research clearly shows that students who become active and engaged members of the university community in their first year are more likely to make it to graduation than students who don’t,” says Thia Wolf, English professor and First Year Experience director. “That is our goal—to give our freshmen every opportunity to succeed and obtain a degree.”

Perhaps no feature of First Year Experience has been more successful than the Town Hall Meeting program. Freshmen in English 130–Academic Writing are asked to read and write about what it means to be in a democracy, and how informed dialogue—expressed throughout U.S. history in town hall gatherings—is crucial to the democratic process. They pick controversial topics, ranging from underage drinking to Sudanese genocide, that will be discussed by students and community members in both a large gathering and breakout sessions. The students prepare presentations and public displays, facilitate forums, and act as educated participants in a community dialogue.

Since the town hall meetings started in 2006, the number of attendees from the campus and the community has grown considerably (see chart). During the reception at the end of the town hall, students meet with local leaders to discuss how ideas suggested in the discussions can be implemented.

“The students tell us they love the town hall meetings, and they really want their input to mean something,” says English professor Jill Swiencicki, coordinator of the department’s composition program and an English 130 instructor. “We are encouraging them to follow up on recommendations with the University and city. Getting involved helps them and the community.”

Another key aspect of First Year Experience is a “book in common” that freshmen read and write about. Eaton was chosen to talk to University 101 freshmen because of his familiarity with humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer, the subject of the 2007 Book in Common, Mountains Beyond Mountains. As befitting the goal of student involvement, once freshmen learned about the plight of the rural Haitians Farmer was helping, they wanted to do something. Four classes organized a dance marathon in December 2007 that earned some of the money needed to pay for more than 1,000 backpacks for health workers to carry medicine and supplies to remote areas.

The success of the First Year Experience Program has resulted in a grant from the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Charles Engelhard Foundation for a redesign of University 101 and a set of integrated general education classes. The grant supports civic engagement instruction; an example was the “Chico as Place” project in fall 2007, where first-year students studied Chico Creek from several disciplinary perspectives and worked to restore native plants along the creek bank with Mechoopda tribal members.

“For many freshmen, the first year in college can be an isolating experience,” notes Wolf. “We are encouraged that our entering students want to learn about the world around them, and how they can acquire tools to effect change. First Year Experience works to support the whole student—we try to provide them with curricular and co-curricular experiences that help them advance as scholars, as thoughtful individuals, and as engaged members of a community.”

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