Office devoted to enhancing first-year experience for students

KU freshman Adelle Loney gets some study help from Neil Phillips, a mentor, at Templin Hall in a program that makes the transition to college smoother.

The new First-Year Experience Office at Kansas University has had its own successful first year, helping thousands of students transition into college life.

“We feel we have built a refuge of support throughout the university,” said Sarah Crawford-Parker, director of the KU First-Year Experience Office, which organizes orientations and welcome programs for incoming students.

The office works to breed collaboration among the different groups and departments on campus, to make new students more comfortable finding their own niche while also feeling part of the larger KU community.

“We want to shrink the university for first-year students,” said Howard Graham, associate director for academic programs in the First-Year Experience Office, by showing them that “there’s room to be creative, to carve out your speciality, to express yourself the way you want to express yourself — all within the bounds of the university.”

In 2012, the First-Year Experience Office introduced the KU Common Book, a tome assigned to incoming students to give them a common topic to share and discuss throughout their freshman year while introducing them to new concepts and ways of thinking. The 2012 book, “Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays,” explored race in America.

Another program, First-Year Seminars, gives students the opportunity to take part in small, discussion-based courses on cutting-edge topics that, through hands-on learning, aim to foster the intellectual-discovery process at KU.

After the KU administration announced a goal of increasing student retention by 10 percent, the First-Year Experience Office decided to try, on a pilot basis, creating learning communities. These programs are designed to help new students have a more cohesive first year, both academically and socially, by taking classes and seminars alongside peers with similar academic interests and being mentored by older students, alumni and professionals in their fields of study. In some of them, the students all live in the same building. KU had learning communities in the past but discontinued them about five years ago due to budgetary constraints.

In the University Honors Program’s learning community, 12 students in health-related majors attended the same biology and English classes, chemistry and math courses in combination, and also attended related seminars.

“Most of what we’re trying to do is help students transfer more smoothly from high school to college and get up to speed to do college work faster,” said Anne Dotter, associate director of the University Honors Program.

Adelle Loney, a freshman pre-med student, is glad she had the opportunity to be in the honors learning community. She said it enabled her to form bonds and friendships that could last her entire KU career, if not longer. The program introduced her to fellow students more interested in learning and studying than the “typical” college experience.

Hearing from a professional — a physician, in this case — was also beneficial to Loney, in that it reinforced her decision to go into medicine. “He said that being a doctor is a lifestyle. When it’s 5 o’clock, you don’t check out. I thought it would be a good fit for me,” she said.

Neil Phillips, a junior studying genetics and Spanish who was a seminar assistant, said he wished learning communities were available when he started at KU. His freshman seminar was on 17th-century art in Amsterdam; he said he would have rather learned about something more applicable to his own interests. That said, he’s still in contact with peers from that seminar, showing the impact these early courses can have.

Thanks to the pilot programs’ success in 2012, learning communities will now be a permanent fixture at KU. The First-Year Experience Office is offering ones in the fall that explore sustainability and visual culture.

“We want to start the discussion early that this is a lively place where we exchange ideas, experiment and broaden students’ thinking,” Crawford-Parker said.