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First Year Experience course a success, say all involved

Dr. Jennifer Desiderio and Tracy Callaghan, co-directors of the new First Year Experience program. (Kyra Laurie for The Griffin)

For the first time in five years, Canisius is giving freshmen and transfer students something more than orientation. Griff 101, the extended orientation course that ran from 2014 to 2016, was discontinued because it was — as a 2015 column in this newspaper bluntly put it — a “failure.” Students complained that it was mandatory but not credit-bearing and that it merely repeated information that freshmen were given over the summer and in orientation.

Since it was last taught in the fall of 2016, plans to remold Griff 101 “were put on the backburner,” says Associate Director for the Griff Center Tracy Callaghan, co-director of a new First Year Experience (FYE) program. It had been a “continuous conversation” in the academic subcommittee of the Retention Committee, but only after the pandemic flipped the world upside down did senior administration make the development of FYE a priority.

It was a gift-wrapped answer to the ever-important question for liberal arts schools: how can we connect students to campus? In partnership with the Faculty Senate, senior administration formed an FYE working group in spring 2021 to develop a pilot course with several goals: increase academic success and retention; address educational and support inequity among students; and better connect students, professors and campus resources.

Canisius was a rare college without a freshman seminar course; on the flip side, this meant there were lots of options to model when creating their own. Niagara, whose program was overseen by Canisius’s Dean of Arts and Sciences Tom Chambers in his time there, was looked at. Programs at St. Bonaventure and John Carroll were also considered. Canisius’s Wehle School of Business has a mandatory freshman seminar course, but this was not considered as a model because it is not cross-discipline.

In response to criticisms of Griff 101, Callaghan said FYE is “really strategic in how we cluster majors together” and an emphasis is placed on integration between summer communications as well as orientation. The Griff Center met with every freshman over the summer and gave them a choice to take FYE (excluding students for whom their major mandates it, such as business majors). 93 percent accepted the Griff Center’s “strong recommendation” to enroll.

Classes are grouped, as much as possible, by major. Callaghan, the freshman scheduling czar, had to “tetris everything together” to fit it around existing classes. Students for whom this was impossible were put in a catchall section with no dominant major, which she teaches. She credits the high opt-in rate to freshmen knowing that they “needed something more than orientation.”

Classes begin with “pair and share” in which students share with their neighbor the reflection they’ve written about the prior week’s topic. Then a new topic is introduced using a template common to all classes. In Week four, they discussed “Fostering a College Mindset.” Week five’s topic was “The Library and the Writing Center.” Faculty and staff “appreciated how consistent we made it,” Callaghan said of the universal powerpoint slides.

She emphasized the cohesion between “both sides of the Canisius house”: student affairs and academic affairs. About half of the instructors are staff, including Callaghan herself, and half are faculty, like Dr. Jennifer Desiderio, Callaghan’s fellow co-director.

Desiderio, an associate professor of English, noted that many of the people involved in developing the curriculum also volunteered to teach a class. This included many staff, making FYE a unique cross-college collaboration — and a reminder, despite recent tension, that “everybody is really committed to trying to make this work.” As a representative of the Faculty Senate on the working group, she said professors are fully supportive of the program.

Another group that is supportive — and given the same stipend — is peer mentors. Each FYE section is aided by an upperclassman peer mentor who leads discussion in class while encouraging their younger peers to get more involved in campus outside of class. Their goal, according to peer mentor Tino Deemer, is to lessen the “culture shock” between high school and college. A junior animal behavior, ecology and conservation major, Deemer’s class is mostly filled with biology and chemistry majors who are taking many of the classes he took as a freshman.

He agreed with Desiderio that FYE is an opportunity for upperclassmen to connect with faculty; Deemer, also a Resident Assistant, has worked with Dr. Christian Blum to complete a syllabus he praised as exhaustive. “The biggest problem is that we run out of time,” he said, calling for perhaps some “minor tweaks” to perfect an otherwise well-designed course he wishes he had had as a freshman.

One freshman who appreciates what he has is adolescence education major Jacob Baudo, who recognizes that the one-credit course provides a relaxed atmosphere often absent in its regular, three-credit counterparts. Baudo, a commuter from West Seneca, says FYE is “nothing too vigorous” and thinks the reflection-heavy workload is fair.

Baudo says FYE has connected him to student resources such as the Writing Center, but could do a better job keeping him on campus. His peer mentor, Kobe Soriano, does all he can to make the class aware of events; however, Baudo thinks the class could go to an event or two together — perhaps in lieu of a class — so that shy students don’t have to go alone and to make it less of a burden for commuters.

Whether it remains an optional pilot course or it becomes mandatory for next year’s freshmen, everyone I spoke to is in agreement: FYE should go on. Deemer, the peer mentor, says he is very interested in mentoring a class again. Co-directors Callaghan and Desiderio, like Deemer, voiced a need for “tweaks” to involve more clubs and campus events, or even create a more robust syllabus to address common — but often unasked — questions. Freshman Baudo summed it up as a “good opportunity to meet new people, learn about the school, and have a semi-easy class to get a credit.”

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