New Orientation to Guide Students Through First Year
New students march off to college with grand plans and high expectations, but too often they get lost in a fog of deadlines and competing demands, without really understanding how to navigate college life or how to make the most of experiences beyond the classroom. Now, South Florida Community College is creating an extensive, first-year learning experience that will guide new students through their first year of college and provide them with the basic foundation they need to thrive and succeed.
The 16-hour orientation program, called the Guide to Personal Success (GPS), has been in the works since 2009, when SFCC’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) Taskforce was charged with identifying and developing a program that would enhance the learning experience for SFCC students and also meet a criteria for the college’s 2011 reaffirmation of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). By surveying nearly 700 students, faculty, staff, and business leaders about possible improvement programs, the taskforce found that well over half supported the first-year learning experience.
According to Erik Christensen, QEP Steering Committee co-chair, physics professor, and chair of SFCC’s Natural Sciences Department, first-year learning experiences have been embraced by freshmen at colleges and universities all over the nation. Extensive evaluations of these programs find that students who participate in a first-year learning experience are significantly more likely to earn better grades, connect with their peers through college activities, and finish their education.
“We want to help students get started off on the right foot,” Christensen said. “The taskforce has spent a year looking at data and talking to students. We found out that many of them are unprepared for college.”
At this stage, the taskforce has completed a report about the Guide to Personal Success for SACS, said Dr. Michele Heston, QEP Steering Committee co-chair and director of Nursing Education. The report explains why first-year learning experience was selected, how it will be implemented, and what students will learn from completing it. Once SACS gives its blessing, the curriculum will be finalized and instructors will be trained and credentialed to teach the course to an anticipated 1,400 students a year.
In fall 2012, the Guide to Personal Success will be launched as a pilot program for approximately 100 students. In spring 2013, the course becomes mandatory for all new students who are seeking an associate degree or entering an occupational program of at least 600 hours as well as transfer students who have acquired fewer than 30 credit hours. An online version will be available to new students who are enrolling in online courses exclusively. By completing the course, students earn one hour of college credit.
The first component of GPS is a four-hour orientation, which freshmen must complete before registering for their first academic term of classes. Students will learn how to create a class schedule, register for classes, complete financial aid forms, navigate the college’s Internet-based Panther Central and Panther Den, get a student identification card, and perform other vital tasks. At the end of this orientation, students will register for their classes.
During the first six weeks of their first academic term, freshmen will complete a mandatory 12-hour orientation course. Students will become familiar with college services, cooperative education and work study opportunities, successful study techniques, communicating with instructors, student rights, and other important topics as well as academic, social, and community activities.
“The research is abounding in that if you can engage students outside the classroom, if they participate in sports or a club or anything, they are much more likely to stay in college,” Christensen said.
“The transition from high school or careers is a very key time,” Dr. Heston said. “The purpose of our first-year learning experience is to help students become more focused, more confident, and more prepared for college.”
“The plan is still in the development stage,” Christensen said. “It’s not engrained in granite. We’re still moving things around.”
In addition to Christensen and Dr. Heston, the steering committee includes Elizabeth Andrews, coordinator of Academic Foundations and preparatory writing professor, and Judy Zemko, Counseling Department chair.