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First Year Experience Program
Provides Support and Challenge
September 27, 1999

Imagine that life's dreams and objectives were not something you had to earn - to borrow an old advertising phrase - "the old-fashioned way." Suppose they were commodities and you could simply purchase them, the way you'd buy a home or a new automobile.

Suppose that for $100,000 you could buy a lifetime lock on any of the timeless values that have emerged, down through the ages, as the key ideas that define a rich and rewarding human existence. Now, suppose that you actually had $100,000 (but only $100,000) to spend on these rare commodities. How would you spend it?

Would you buy an exciting life? Or would you opt for financial security? Would you spend your $100,000 budget ensuring personal freedom or would you want to purchase a close and enduring relationship with God?

Perhaps you think you'd know the answer right away. But what if the array of options spread out before you in this market of ideals also included things like a perfect love affair, universal harmony, a flawless family life, enduring good health, a world of beauty, political power, deep friendships, fame, an "authentic" world, and wisdom.

Still think you've got the right answer?

Creating a Game Plan
Of course, there aren't any right answers in this intellectual parlor game. But it makes a powerful learning tool, says John Szarlan, a counselor in the Counseling Center. Szarlan uses this premise for an exercise called the Personal Goals Auction, as part of the rapidly expanding First Year Experience program.

Szarlan, who - along with Suman Singha, a professor and associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources - won an award from the University this year for their contributions to the First Year Experience - says, "The point of the exercise is to force students to begin establishing some personal priorities. Without knowing who you really are and what you really want to accomplish in life, it's impossible to create a game plan. And without a game plan, everything, including your education, lacks meaning and context."

The First Year Experience is not about absolutes, says Szarlan. It's about guiding new students and helping them find both themselves and the resources they need to be successful. "If we can start students off on the right foot here, we help them establish a pattern that we hope will endure throughout their careers and lives."

Szarlan, Singha and their colleagues must be doing something right. Participation in the optional course, which is open to all freshmen, is growing dramatically.

Support, says Szarlan, is a key to the program's success. But, he quickly adds, so is challenge. "First Year Experience is based on the understanding that new students need support," he says. "College can be an overwhelming experience. Most students experience a variety of problems and challenges and one of the important points of the program is to help them address those problems."

Common topics in First Year Experience include study skills, time and stress management, University resources, computer and library tools, and the dynamics of networking. Every student in each section is required to accept the responsibility of being a resource for the others, says Szarlan. When a student reports having problems with a math class, for instance, Szarlan encourages him or her to turn to others in the group, as well as using University resources such as tutoring or speaking with the instructor.

Educating High Achievers
But Szarlan is quick to add that students also need challenge. "That's how we all grow," he says, "by doing things we have never done before, by taking responsibility for our education and our lives."

Pointing to the pioneering work of David McClellan, who coined the term "achievement motivation," he says, "Research has demonstrated again and again that there are identifiable characteristics that distinguish people who achieve a lot in life. The question for those of us involved with First Year Experience is whether we can teach people to become high achievers."

"I believe we can," says Singha, who has been involved with the program since it was launched. "Many new students are confused," he says. "Faced with a great deal of freedom for the first time in their lives, they don't know how to effectively manage it. I have seen the success of First Year Experience again and again. I get letters and calls from former students who thank me for helping them succeed."

In the past, he notes, most universities did very little to help new students deal with the challenges they face. "The tragedy is that many bright young people failed," he says. "I applaud UConn for what it's doing with this program. I don't think there's another university doing more to develop effective first-year interventions."

But how do students feel about First Year Experience? Well, more of them are signing up. In 1996, the year Szarlan first taught in the program, some 200 freshmen signed up. This year, thanks to word-of-mouth promotion, the program has nearly 50 sections and some 1,000 students.

That's because it works, says Erica Miller, a sophomore from Charlestown, R.I., who participated in the program last year and is serving as a mentor this year. "First Year Experience helped me a lot," she says. Although her father works at the University Computer Center, she says she felt overwhelmed when she first arrived.

"I made a lot of enduring friendships through First Year Experience," says Miller. "New students have many problems and we all learned from each other how to survive and become more successful. I would recommend this program to any new student."

Dave Torbati, a junior from Stamford, agrees. A beneficiary of First Year Experience as a freshman, Torbati now volunteers his time for the Honors Program's freshman seminars, which are similar to First Year Experience in many respects.

"I really think First Year Experience should be an integral part of every student's college experience," says Torbati. "When I took the course there were 20 people in it. Seventeen of them remain close friends to this day. We learned how to help each other and be resilient. There's no question that First Year Experience can help freshmen become better students."

Jim Smith