Home » FeatureSpring 2008

Off to a Solid Start

by Whitney Weeks, BA’94 No Comment

Good Start

The transition from high school to college is a big one. The transition from high school to world-renowned private research university is gargantuan. With an ultimate goal of ensuring that all of its undergraduates make that transition smoothly and excel during their time at Vanderbilt, the College of Arts and Science pays particular attention to the acclimation of its first-year students. 

“Students graduate from high school and wrestle with issues they haven’t previously confronted—time management, personal autonomy, personal responsibility, new academic challenges, new forms of academic and cognitive learning, and new social networks,” says Frank Wcislo, dean of The Commons and associate professor of history. 

An academic institution has the responsibility to help students as they encounter new experiences and expectations, Wcislo explains. Vanderbilt and the College of Arts and Science have a long history of helping with transitions both academic and social. Traditionally, such programs and initiatives include pre-major advising in the college, a quality residential life program, senior faculty teaching introductory courses, activities fairs, and college and university sponsored social activities. 

New initiatives place an increased emphasis on the value of a liberal arts education, on what it means to study at a major research university, and on improving the quality of students’ writing.

In the last five years, the College of Arts and Science has grown its efforts even more. New initiatives place an increased emphasis on the value of a liberal arts education, on what it means to study at a major research university, and on improving the quality of students’ writing. Additionally, the institution recognizes students’ needs to develop significant relationships with faculty and with each other early in their academic careers. These initiatives for first-year students overlap in several areas, starting with a new curriculum for all College of Arts and Science students. 

Exposure to Ideas and Inquiry: The AXLE Curriculum

Implemented in fall 2005, Achieving eXcellence in Liberal Education (AXLE) replaced the previous Arts and Science curriculum. More streamlined and with less narrowly defined categories of requirements than its predecessor, the curriculum provides for approximately 13 courses within six categories to fulfill a student’s AXLE obligations. The categories—Humanities and the Creative Arts, International Cultures, History and Culture of the United States, Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Perspectives—ensure students receive broad exposure to ideas and inquiry, hallmarks of a liberal arts education.  

“One thing we hope a Vanderbilt education can do, and why I so firmly believe in the liberal arts, is that it provides students with the tools to problem solve in different ways,” says Fräncille Bergquist, associate dean of the College of Arts and Science and associate professor of Spanish. “It liberates them to be open to new ways of viewing the world and themselves, and I think that is just extraordinarily valuable.” 

Rather than prescribing a specific course of study for students, explains John Sloop, associate dean of academic affairs and professor of communications studies, AXLE helps students avoid creating a narrow educational experience for themselves. 

“We don’t want to overprogram what the students are doing. We are trying to set up the conditions where they can best take control of their own education, where they can best be empowered to grab hold of their education in a way that they haven’t before. This is not a way of sheltering students, but of forcing them to do more,” he says. 

Under the umbrella of AXLE are the college’s first-year writing seminars. As a result of feedback from professors of upper-level courses as well as from graduate schools and employers, the school pays deliberate attention to helping its newest students become stronger, more persuasive writers. 

All students must take a one-semester seminar in their first year. Each department offers a minimum of two writing seminars, which typically gives freshmen 80 seminars on different, intellectual topics from which to choose. Whether taking Science, Voodoo Science, and Democracy; Worlds of Wordcraft: Digital Narrative and Virtual Reality; or Gangs and Gang Behavior, each seminar strengthens students’ ability to communicate their ideas in writing. The seminars also serve as an introduction to research and academic life, emphasizing critical thinking and deliberate inquiry, and make the teaching of writing the responsibility of all departments, not just those traditionally associated with composition.

Each writing seminar requires that students write 15 to 20 pages per course, giving students plenty of opportunity to improve both the quality of their writing and their ability to defend strong, logical arguments. 

An integral part of the first-year experience in the College of Arts and Science, the seminars also encourage students to engage in independent learning and inquiry in an environment in which they can express knowledge and defend opinions through class discussion, oral presentations and writing. The small-group nature of these seminars promotes direct student-faculty interaction and student-to-student communication.

Building a Social Network: Vanderbilt Visions

Engaging all undergraduates in every school, Vanderbilt Visions represents one of the newest components of the first-year experience. Designed as an introduction “to the goals and values of a research university through discussion and collaborative experiences,” Vanderbilt Visions is a hybrid of academic seminar and mentor-supported social network. The concept and original curriculum were designed by a committee of faculty, staff, students and administrators to improve upon the social, academic, cognitive and cultural experiences of first-year students. Currently in its second year, Visions has shifted from an academic seminar format to a more informal, organic way to cement the lessons and information garnered during orientation. It also invites students to critically examine their first year at the university. More than 90 Vanderbilt Visions groups meet weekly, each co-led by a faculty mentor and an upperclass student mentor. 

 “We are addressing the transition [from high school to college], not in top-down, supervisory structures or lectures, but by providing an environment in which the first-year students themselves can actually articulate what they are going through, and in essence, study it,” says Wcislo, who is also a member of the Vanderbilt Visions executive committee. 

“First-year students themselves can actually articulate what they are going through, and in essence, study it.”

— Frank Wcislo

Deliberately created groups bring together students with different interests and backgrounds from Vanderbilt’s four undergraduate colleges and schools. The first-year students reap a shared understanding of experience because they are all new to Vanderbilt. Equally important, each Vanderbilt Visions group forms an instant association of friends and acquaintances. 

Nervous at the prospect of coming to Vanderbilt without knowing anyone else, Madison Akerblom of Los Angeles
liked meeting 15 other freshmen, a professor and an upperclass student before classes started. Her comfort level increased as she then saw familiar faces all across campus. “And I met people I would have never met otherwise, one of whom is my best friend today,” she says.  

Based on feedback from prior participants, starting in fall 2008 Vanderbilt Visions will meet formally for the first semester only, rather than all year long. Sessions will take place at The Commons, which will house the entire class of incoming first-year students this year. 

The Commons Experience

In fact, many changes will occur in the first-year experience at both Vanderbilt and the College of Arts and Science when The Commons’ 10 houses welcome their first residents in August 2008. The Commons will bring together all first-year students, currently housed in three different residence settings across campus. Characterized by student-led programming, faculty heads of houses, and the already popular Commons Center, The Commons will provide a physical landscape and communal living that will complement the programs already benefitting first-year students.  In addition to Wcislo’s role as dean of The Commons, several Arts and Science faculty will serve as heads of houses, each living in residence with the first-year students.  

 Helping new students acclimate to university life is a core objective of the College of Arts and Science. The fruit is an all-time high retention rate, a greater number of quality applicants than ever before, and a student body that is engaged, involved and proud to be part of a vibrant, academic community. 

“I feel very, very good about where the university is with the [first-year] students. There are a lot of people working very hard on these issues,” Sloop says. “I genuinely think we have a level of commitment and excitement that is not commonly matched at other universities. I really think we’re doing something right now that’s good.”

Photos by Neil Brake, Steve Green, Mason Hensley, Jenny Mandeville, John Russell.

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