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The First Year of the Rest of Their Lives

By Elizabeth Walker

First-Year ProgramWithin hours of setting foot and suitcase on the Holy Cross campus last fall, Kelly Mahoney wanted to go home. Among the more than 700 arriving first-year students, none of whom she knew, Mahoney felt small, scared and alone. Not even the heat of the August sun that baked the Hill penetrated the chill and isolation she felt. 

But Mahoney conquered her impulse to flee. After her first night in Hanselman residence hall, home of the College's First-Year Program, she quickly made friends. The next day, in one of her first classes, "Myths of Equality," sociology professor and FYP seminar leader Ed Thompson encouraged her-and 14 of her dorm-mates-to share their ideas as they sat in comfortable chairs around a square table. The conversation continued informally in Hanselman that evening.  

Less than a week later, Mahoney knew that learning and living at Holy Cross would challenge, stretch and comfort her. She also felt a sense of belonging at Holy Cross and in Hanselman. How appropriate that several years before, author Jill Ker Conway had shared with first-year students from that same residence hall her insights on satisfying the hunger of the intellect. She had detailed that quest in her coming-of-age memoir, The Road from Coorain, the first book read in common by the first "fyppers," members of the FYP. Her visit provided the intellectual christening of a radically different program at Holy Cross. 

Jump-starting the Transition 
Few incoming college students discover the strong sense of community that Kelly Mahoney found early on among her classmates, hall-mates, and professors. She and 160 other incoming students got a "jump-start" in their transition from high school to college through the First-Year Program at Holy Cross. Stated simply, the program, now entering its eighth year, is intended to help students discover the connections between learning and living by removing the "walls" that separate their intellectual, social and ethical lives. 

Today, most colleges and universities offer some variation on the traditional first-year orientation, according to Jacqueline Dansler Peterson, Holy Cross vice president for Student Affairs. Typically, such programs last a day, or several, while providing new students with an opportunity to register for classes, meet with advisers and tour the campus. More ambitious programs last a week, often followed up later in the year with workshops on topics, such as peer pressure, civility, respect and decision-making. First-year students participate in leadership training, learn to organize themselves and are exposed to "survival skills"-everything from time management to date-rape prevention. 

Indeed, Holy Cross will itself offer an expanded orientation session this summer (see sidebar), but the First-Year Program ratchets up the transition concept to a new level of personal and institutional commitment. The FYP expands its scope far beyond college survival skills. It also deepens the intensity of the Holy Cross first-year experience by housing participants in the same residence hall. The residential component distinguishes it from other first-year efforts at colleges and universities nationwide. The program extends its reach to include faculty involvement both in and outside the classroom by creating a superstructure of seminars and "extended," rather than "extra," curricular activities, events, lectures and field trips where scheduled and informal interactions can take place among faculty and students.  

Matt Saldarelli, a FYP participant who recently completed his first year, says the program is "hard to describe, but easy to live." All incoming students, like Saldarelli and Mahoney, have the option of selecting the program upon acceptance at Holy Cross. Often the program is defined by what it is not, said Helen Whall, currently director of the FYP. It is not an honors program, it is not exclusive, and it is not an island cut off from the rest of the College.  

The First-Year Program is, instead, an opportunity seized by some of the most interesting and interested students.  The FYP can accommodate up to one quarter of the incoming first-year class. The residential component, while offering each student total immersion in learning and living in an evolving intellectual and social community, does not interfere with participants' other classes and social interactions. Periodically scheduled group activities take the learning outside the classroom, while relating it to the inquiry that has taken place within. This year's FYP students found themselves making connections between selected readings which focused on issues of immigration and class structures with field trips to Lowell, Mass.; Newport, R.I.; and Ellis Island. 

Each student selects one among eight two-semester classes designed specifically for FYP by an all-volunteer interdisciplinary team of faculty. The FYP classes, which round out the typical four-class student load each semester, all center on specific readings and the FYP theme taught from a variety of disciplines. Authors, ranging from Terri Tempest Williams to Gish Jen, and Russian Refusenik Natan Sharansky, have come to talk with the students. 

The Question 
The heart and soul of the First-Year Program is a question which both anchors the program and points it in new directions each year. "How, then, shall we live?" is the program's pivotal query, first asked by the great 19th-century Russian author Leo Tolstoy. That question dovetails with the Jesuit tradition which underpins a Holy Cross education - that a student's moral and intellectual development should not be separate from his or her intellectual life. This belief forms the foundation upon which the First-Year Program was built. 

"Each year a faculty team comes together and adds a clause to that question," says English Professor Helen Whall, a Shakespeare scholar who taught in the first FYP before becoming director. "A new director is appointed every two-to-three years. Directors must have taught in the program. So many faculty want to teach in the program that each year the pool increases. Fifty-to-60 faculty have now taught in FYP." 

Each spring, the director calls together seven to 10 faculty members from across disciplines to determine shared readings and settle on a theme that firmly centers Tolstoy's penetrating question. The group meets throughout the summer to determine the six texts its members agree upon to prepare for the arrival of the new class in the fall. The team continues to meet on a weekly basis throughout the year. 

"The faculty must own the theme," Whall said. "That question will inform every course. In the past year, we asked, 'In a world of contradiction, how, then, shall we live?' This fall the FYP faculty, which includes a chemist, a theologian, a biologist, three literature professors, a sociologist and a philosopher, will ask, 'How, then, shall we live with the tension between permanence and change?'" 

Today the dichotomy of permanence and change shapes both the macro and micro environments in which colleges and their students must survive and thrive. The friction between these two forces is what created the First-Year Program at Holy Cross. Interest in such a program came at the end of an intense, decade-long self-examination, according to a First-Year Program study conducted by Holy Cross faculty members Royce Singleton Jr., Robert Garvey, and Gary Phillips. The concept for what is now the First-Year Program "boiled" for many years with a great deal of faculty interest and involvement on both sides of the issue, Whall said. 

In their article, "Connecting the Academic and Social Lives of Students: The Holy Cross First-Year Program" (May/June issue of Change magazine), Singleton, Garvey and Phillips detail fundamental changes that Holy Cross experienced through the 1960s and 1970s. Those changes included "a shift to coeducation, a sharp decline in the number of Jesuit faculty, and a faculty that had become increasingly research-focused." The college responded to these changes in the 1980s with a mission statement intended to "identify common ground for a predominantly lay and pluralistic faculty, an overwhelmingly Catholic student body and an institution with a strong Jesuit tradition." 

The mission statement speaks to the College's dedication to forming a community which supports the intellectual growth of all its members while offering opportunities for moral and spiritual development. It also calls for creating an environment in which integrated learning is a shared responsibility in every aspect of the curriculum and student life. 

On the heels of the new mission statement came in-depth reports from two campus committees that scrutinized student life and the overall curriculum in preparation for the college's 10-year re-accreditation visit. The student life report concluded that many students' social lives revolved around alcohol consumption, according to Singleton, Garvey and Phillips. The curriculum report found that students' learning lacked integration, "not only among courses, but also between those courses and their lives outside the classroom." 

Curricular disconnectedness and social dysfunction were not challenges unique to Holy Cross. The 1987 Carnegie report, College: The Undergraduate Experience in America, revealed that lack of curricular and co-curricular cohesion spelled a crisis in higher education. The report's author, Ernest Boyer, suggested that one way to link the students' academic and nonacademic lives - and convince them that they are part of an intellectually vital, caring community - was to create a comprehensive first-year program. 

Costly Solution Becomes Vital Investment 
Creating a program for first-year students that is intensive and extensive enough to influence a student's next four years, that also will fully support the institutional mission and  somehow effect change in deeply ingrained negative aspects of campus culture is neither easy, nor inexpensive, nor, some have said, is it realistic. None of those concerns could stop the various iterations of proposed first-year programs until the current one got off the ground in 1991 with faculty acceptance and a matching grant from the Xerox Corporation. Last year a faculty vote bestowed permanent status on the program after a six-year trial period.

Garvey, an associate professor of physics who came to Holy Cross in 1977, both directed and taught in the program during its initial year. 

"Everybody involved, students and faculty, had a sense of being pioneers," he said. "We realized that we were the first, which made it a heady experience. We held our first couple of group discussions in Hanselman's social room to get discussions going in the residence hall. I think the students learned quickly that they were not a homogeneous group, and that they could disagree and still be friends." 

From the start, Garvey and his colleagues had no idea how many first-year students would opt for the program, nor did they know if students would participate in the activities or events the faculty had planned. All they could do was urge them to attend - and they did.  

Establishing such a community demands tremendous faculty, financial and physical plant resources, as well as time, energy and student interest. Keeping the FYP voluntary, moreover, seems crucial to maintaining its identity. 

"Our main goal was to establish an intellectual community," Garvey said. "Not everyone wants to be part of one. Nor is everyone comfortable with the central question. Students today think of themselves as individuals. They are more likely to ask, 'How, then, shall I (rather than we) live?'" 

Faculty Development 
The long hours and extensive involvement outside of class come as no surprise to the FYP faculty who sign on. The effects the program has on their own teaching, relationships with colleagues outside of their departments and perspectives on student learning have been startling.  

"The ignorance of faculty about student life is gargantuan," Garvey said. "Some faculty say teaching in the program helps them see students as more complete human beings because it breaks down the compartments in which we all operate." 

Like many others who have taught in the FYP, Garvey sees the program as a testing ground for innovation. He has become more interactive with his students, getting them to talk more in class and write more about how they are working out the problems he gives them.  

Former FYP director Gary Phillips, an associate professor of religious studies, found "unlearning" teaching styles as productive as implementing new teaching strategies. His own teaching was transformed by his involvement in the program to become more student-centered.  

Current director Whall found her own experiences working with colleagues an invigorating return to her own days as a student. "Each week I found myself learning new teaching techniques or gaining new insights. Freed from departmental concerns, faculty in the FYP quickly engage in collaborative work." 

Gary Phillips views the program as a bridge across the gap between residence life and the classroom. For students, the program mediates the transition from a protected high school environment to the free-for-all atmosphere of campus life. As one FYP participant put it, "the program allows me to have a life without having to have a 'life.'" That is, a social life limited to weekend parties. 

"We could hardly frame a more developmentally appropriate question than, 'How, then, shall we live?'" Phillips said. "Eighteen-year-olds are asking that question though they frame it differently from adults as they push and tug on the parameters of their lives. We are legitimizing their asking the question and, as educators, are helping them reflect on it." 

Students who participate in the First-Year Program at Holy Cross are also getting something else, according to sociology Professor Royce Singleton, who has taught in the program. Singleton, with Garvey and Phillips, has analyzed the large volume of data collected about the program each year, as well as related student data, to measure the success and impact of FYP. 

"We had an extensive array of data that went beyond student and faculty perspectives, including a survey administered by the Dean of Students' Office to all students in all residence halls. We had responses from our own surveys and a variety of other data to analyze." 

Despite the inability to control completely for different attributes that FYP and non-FYP students bring to the program, Singleton says he is "utterly convinced" that the First-Year Program has a profound effect on the quality of participants' Holy Cross experience over their four years on campus. 

For every one of the program's first five years, the evaluations show that FYP students rated their residence more favorably than did other first-year students, perceived a greater sense of community and tolerance among their floormates, and behaved more responsibly than other first-year students as evidenced by fewer disciplinary cases and alcohol-related incidents. 

Additionally, after their first year, FYP students were more likely than other students to assume campus leadership positions, participate in the Honors and Study Abroad programs, achieve significantly higher grades, and be more active in community outreach programs. The list continues. 

Singleton believes that the "social capital" FYP students acquire through participation in the program accounts for some of their success. As FYP students, they learn more about programs and their opportunities on campus are enhanced. They also learn about them earlier in their college careers. Their professors know them better and can write much more detailed letters of recommendation. Their more positive first-year experiences help them to have more confidence and get more excited about learning. 

Helen Whall is equally excited about the future of the FYP. As more and more students graduate from the program, negative stereotypes of 'fyppers' crumble." 

Kelly Mahoney agrees. She sees FYP students as having a broader base of support for whatever it is they want to achieve. 

"I feel as though I have my foot in the door," said Mahoney. "I know that if I want to run for a student government office, I already have 160 people behind me, plus all the upperclass students who participated in FYP during their first year. I have learned so much about myself and so many other things through FYP. I no longer feel small, I have definitely grown, but I know that I have so much more growing to do." 

Knowing that one has much more growing to do seems a most appropriate response to the question "How then shall we live?" 

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