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  October 15, 2001

Professional Staff Turn Skills to
Teaching First Year Experience Classes

Kathleen Labadorf can't say enough about this year's freshman class.

"There's an incredible competency within them. The way they write, the things they've done. The commitment to community service. They're ready to learn, paying attention. And they're getting better!" she says.

Labadorf, the undergraduate librarian at the Homer Babbidge Library, should know. Not only is she in her third year as an instructor in UConn's expanding First Year Experience program, she also works with hundreds of other freshmen each year as she introduces more than 40 FYE classes to the vast resources of the library.

Labadorf is one of more than 80 professional employees at UConn who volunteered this year to teach or co-teach a one-credit FYE class.

"We couldn't have done it without their help," says David Ouimette, director of the six-year-old program. "There was more demand this year than we could fill. We were adding classes left and right."

The program, which offers freshmen more than 70 university learning skills classes, several dozen faculty-student seminar classes, and a host of more focused courses, has exploded since it was introduced in 1996. That year, 332 freshmen enrolled in the classes. This fall, Ouimette says, almost two-thirds of the freshman class - nearly 2,100 students - signed on. And, he says, more students would have signed up if there were more instructors.

"These courses help the freshmen become more connected, to be better able to deal with major life changes, understand the resources we have at UConn," says Ouimette. "FYE helps them understand they should take advantage of everything UConn has to offer."

More than half the courses offered are of a general nature, serving as a semester-long orientation program. Students are reintroduced to the library and all its resources. They learn how to access academic advisors, how to work with faculty, how best to manage their time, and even how to use the shuttle bus. They learn about the HEART program, about leadership, and about the array of medical - and mental health - programs available on campus.

For Monica Kettle, who works in the academic service center in the dean's office of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, it's all that and more.

"My class didn't even know about the Dean of Students' office, that he's an advocate for students. They don't know how to reschedule a final exam if they have to go to a funeral or are ill. These classes are tremendously valuable," Kettle says. "I taught (freshman) English courses as a graduate student, and I know how lost the students are in their first year."

Labadorf, the librarian, says many of the freshmen in her classes hadn't set foot in Homer Babbidge Library before their FYE class.

"Everybody has Netscape or some browser on their computers that can take them to the Web for research. What the students don't realize until they get here is the quality of the literature we have that they can't access from their residence hall," Labadorf says. "They can find material written by people in the field they're researching. That means it will use the lingo of their profession, the jargon. It gives them a much better tool to work with."

The professional employees who volunteered to teach FYE classes come from all corners of campus, Ouimette says, with a cluster volunteering from the student affairs staff. He says that's a natural fit: "Staff there know how to make the connections, where to go to get help, how to get involved."

Professional staff from the Division of Athletics are teaching FYE courses that target the needs of varsity athletes; employees from the Center for Academic Programs continue to work with their charges from the summer; counselors volunteer to teach general programs. There also are FYE courses focusing on the health fields, engineering, or community service.

Professional staff at UConn's regional campuses also value the program, with several courses offered in Stamford and Waterbury and nine sections at the Avery Point Campus.

Trudy Flanery, assistant dean of students for the campus, is a former student leadership director at the Storrs campus.

"Because we're a commuter campus, we work hard to bring students together, and one of those efforts is to pre-register our students in FYE classes," says Flanery. "They don't have to take the course but we urge them to take it, and 75-80 percent are enrolled in one of the sections."

Flanery says campus registrars extend the "social connectedness" effort by also enrolling students from a particular FYE course in additional classes with each other, increasing the likelihood they'll form study groups or connect after classes end.

The social aspect of the FYE programs, which feature casual dialogue between students and instructors, also is proving valuable to professional staff who lead the classes.

"It's a great program. I have a lot of fun sharing my little bits of wisdom with the students, having them ask questions and creating a relationship with them," says Kevin Fahey, associate director of programs in the Student Union. "I never thought of myself as a classroom kind of person, but now I love it. It's really been fun."

Richard Veilleux