Changes to the First-Year Seminar are being implemented by its faculty administrators in order to increase the benefits that they say students receive from the program.
The First-Year Seminar is a one-credit weekly class that is required for freshmen at Saint Vincent College to take, with an official purpose to help first-year students transition into college life at Saint Vincent, especially in regard to academics. Each seminar class corresponds to another class the student is taking their first semester, and is instructed by that class’ professor as well.
Students might find a weekly required class that does not pertain to any specific subject to be a waste of time, as sophomore Christian Loeffler points out.
“It was a lot of ‘what was the point of it,’” Christian said. “I know that sounds bad, but I think that’s what the general vibe was.”
Christian is a biochemistry major who took the First-Year Seminar last year in conjunction with his Introduction to Anthropology class. But while some students may see the Seminar as a less-than-stellar experience, Christian described his experience as a positive one, citing, among other things, the connection he made with his instructor.
“I was able to specifically talk to her about things, and I liked that too, just being able to have a teacher there that you are comfortable with and that you’re able to talk to and go to for things,” he said. “It helps just knowing there’s someone to go to if you have a problem or a question, and you can’t make that bond with just anyone, you kind of have to have that bond pushed onto you.”
Dr. Anthony Serapiglia, First-Year Seminar instructor and computer and information science assistant professor, agrees that deepening bonds between students and teachers is a big part of the seminar.
“For me, from the Saturday morning we first meet, I want [my students] to feel like they can ask me anything,” Serapiglia said. “So that they have a resource, so that they have a place they feel safe.”
He also has his seminar students work on group projects for the Peace and Stewardship Festival so students can create connections between each other as well.
“It gets them to know each other. [It] creates more of a dynamic of peers within the group,” he said.
Other seminar instructors have their students participate in the Festival, which is in its second year of existence.
After creating a friendly atmosphere, Serapiglia said that he tries to educate his freshmen on important college skills.
“Moving forward, it’s more of a case of: let’s have a couple presentations on study skills, on time management, on different ways of just behaving on campus. Or, awareness of just where to go to get information on other events, other activities, how to register when it comes time to register for classes in the second semester,” he explained.
Serapiglia said he supports the First-Year Seminar as a “fabulous idea,” but acknowledges that he is “a cog in the greater machine,” as the program is administered by a group called the First-Year Seminar Taskforce.
The First-Year Seminar Taskforce is a group of faculty consisting of associate professor of sociology/anthropology, Dr. Elaine Bennett; associate professor of philosophy, Dr. George Leiner; assistant professor of biology, Br. Albert Gahr, O.S.B; and history professor, Dr. Timothy Kelly. The Taskforce is led by the Dean of Studies, Alice Kaylor.
According to Bennett, the Taskforce meets regularly to plan, and the professors that teach the seminar meet a couple times a year to do the same.
The Taskforce has determined two goals for this semester’s seminar. The first, according to their planning document, is to “integrate academic life and student life,” and the second is “to help students develop as critically-thinking global citizens.”
One new way the Taskforce has decided to accomplish their goals is by encouraging faculty to incorporate Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si,” into their seminars.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website, the encyclical is an appeal from the Pope for “an inclusive dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.”
The Taskforce is also integrating upperclassmen perspective into the seminars.
“They’re going to have special sessions that prefects will be attending to do peer-led discussion,” Maria Franey, a biochemistry major and prefect in Saint Benedict Hall, explained. “They’re having their normal [First-Year] Seminars right now, every week, and there will be one that will have the prefects involved with it.”
Prefects who decide to participate are being trained on what to do in the seminar, and will join the first-year students for a special session, Franey said.
“I remember as a freshman when I got to know upperclassmen it was nice,” she said. “They would be able to give me a perspective that a lot of my classmates just wouldn’t be able to.”
Serapiglia said the topic of this peer-led talk will be based on what the students in class vote on. He also said he believes the instructors will step out of the room for the talk, so that the student-to-student dialogue does not feel inhibited.
“If something like this seminar would help make those connections between people, freshmen and prefects, underclassmen and upperclassmen,” Franey said, “I think it will definitely contribute to the freshmen’s experience.”
According to Bennett, these changes are due to a commitment to continually improve upon the First-Year Seminar, explaining that the Taskforce regularly determines how they can enrich the student experience in the seminar.
“Our approach is evidence-based and we are conducting various forms of evaluation to see what about this approach is working and what we can improve,” Bennett said.
Kaylor cited the National Survey of Student Engagement as a specific source of insight the Taskforce uses to understand what skills students feel they need.
By and large, Bennett said she thinks the program is effective. “Based on response papers and journals from students in these seminars, we have evidence that most students are engaging with the common theme,” she said.
The theme of contributing to a “more peaceful and just society in which we are good stewards of our resources,” is the theme the Taskforce’s planning document for the fall 2017 semester describes, and while Bennett says that many students have learned this, she also acknowledges that some students have not.
Loeffler and Serapiglia said that they believe some First-Year Seminar instructors do not cover this theme at all, nor discuss the transition into college life.
“There were some other professors that were actually using the [First-Year Seminar] as content, as a fourth hour for their class, as opposed to just seminar stuff,” Serapiglia noted.
However, in the planning document, the First-Year Seminar Taskforce states its commitment to progressing with “a theme of ‘Peace, Justice and Stewardship’ that we are working to integrate into multiple dimensions of the first-year students’ experience.”
“Saint Vincent is not a world in which we are going to build a climbing wall,” Serapiglia quipped when summing up the effects of the First-Year Seminar. “We’re not going to attract students with the health spa. We are going to attract students and keep students because we build relationships with them and give an environment for them in which they feel that they can succeed.”
Photo: John Wojtechko