By Elizabeth Walker
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
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.
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
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
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
in and outside
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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?'"
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
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
Current director Whall found her own experiences working with colleagues an invigorating
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,
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
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
from the program, negative stereotypes of 'fyppers' crumble."
Kelly Mahoney agrees. She sees FYP students
as having a broader base of support
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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