New course at Notre Dame helps freshmen to settle in


The freshmen on a college campus have a lot of adjustments to make. Many are living away from home for the first time. They must share a room with a stranger and learn to get along with people from highly diverse backgrounds.

Decisions must be made that they've never had to make before; new-found freedoms are accompanied by responsibilities unknown in the past. No longer do parents and teachers check to make sure they attend classes, complete assignments and study. In college, it's up to each student whether or not he wants to learn.

"What happens to students is that they find a certain amount of culture shock in the change from high school to college," said Jane Forni, assistant academic dean for the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

"Now they are responsible for scheduling their lives and managing their time. They must learn what the level of expectations is in terms of academic performance and personal responsibility. Often they learn the hard way by failing their first test."

To help new students over some of the academic as well as social hurdles they will face as incoming freshmen, the college now requires a new course, "Perspectives on Education and Culture." Like many other colleges offering so-called "freshmen transition courses," one of its goals is to help students settle into college more easily so they get more out of their entire educational career.

"There was a certain awareness by the faculty and administration that more students were having difficulty with this than we would have liked," Dr. Forni said. "They were taking too long to get acclimated to the new expectations in college."

The first half of the course deals with the practical side of the transition to college. Students are taught techniques of text analysis so they can look beyond the facts and read between the lines. They discuss academic and social adjustment and pressure. They have the opportunity to talk about their feelings in an open forum and also are required to keep a journal of reflections on their experiences.

As part of the course, students must also participate in non-academic programs sponsored by the student affairs office. There are films, discussions and other special presentations on alcohol, drugs and sexuality. Also, there are workshops dealing with stress, career preparation, spirituality, decision-making, library orientation and leadership.

"We take a holistic approach to development," Dr. Forni said. "This course is an important piece in beginning that process."

"We are educating the whole person," agreed Mary Anne O'Donnell, dean of students. "Each student isn't just a student who goes to class. She has to learn to balance all of the different aspects of her life."

Ericka Palmer, an 18-year-old freshman who commutes to the college from Overlea, took the course in the fall.

"I like it a lot," she said. "The professor really cares about how we feel and not just about how much we learn. We do a lot of reflecting and I like the idea that we are not just being fed information."

The classes are team taught by a faculty member and an upperclassman, who is called a "peer mentor." The peer mentor earns three credits and brings to the class a point of view that freshmen can relate to, Dr. Forni said.

"It's very powerful when they speak from their experiences," she added.

"I can offer the fact that I was in the same position three years ago," said Padma Rajasekhara, a 20-year-old senior who is a peer mentor. "I can give the students someone to identify with who knows what they're going through. I'm having a lot of fun with it and I kind of wish it had been there when I was a freshman."

As an Indian-American, Miss Rajasekhara also has a lot to offer during the second half of the course when the focus shifts from the individual student on the college campus to a broader look at the world and its cultures and subcultures.

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