The summer before the first year of college is always complicated. Choosing classes, crafting the perfect WesAdmits posts (plus stalking your future classmates), and preparing to move away from home are only a fraction of the worries running through many students’ minds. This year, students had all the typical concerns plus the additional stressor of navigating life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, the University gave incoming first-years a meaningful way to spend their time stuck in quarantine while getting a head start on preparing for college: first year seminars (FYS).
Every summer, the University offers a selection of intensive classes that can be taken over a five-week period through the Summer Session. In addition to moving the Summer Session fully online, for the first time this summer, the University offered 15 FYS outside of the typical Summer Session courses. All incoming first-years were given the opportunity to take these classes—a mix of those previously offered and new ones—at no extra cost over a six week period. This addition allowed first-year students to begin their education at the University in the fall already having completed one credit.
Typically, FYS are taken during the Fall or Spring semesters. Though not required, these courses are highly recommended and are designed to help students improve their writing skills across a variety of disciplines. They also build community among first-year students, creating a safe classroom environment in which to share ideas and form friendships with other students new to the University.
Classes offered over the summer ranged from History seminars such as “American Crazy”, to Earth & Environmental Studies seminars like “As the World Turns”, to Mathematics seminars like “Deduction With Calculus”. The decision to offer these courses was prompted by the sense that the already difficult transition into college would be even more complicated this year amid the pandemic.
“With all of the uncertainty around the pandemic, we felt that it was important to provide a way for newly admitted students to engage with Wesleyan over the summer,” Associate Provost Sheryl Culotta wrote in an email to The Argus. “The goal was to help students who had not yet matriculated begin to feel connected and supported by Wesleyan during this difficult time.”
Some of the new courses offered this year ran in response to current events. One FYS, “Narrating Pandemics”, focused on the relationship between diseases and the way authors have documented them throughout history.
“It was totally applicable [to today], I think they made the class for the summer,” Anne Horton ’24, who took the seminar, said. “It just made sense. We didn’t spend all our time talking about COVID, but we did spend a lot of time talking about COVID.”
Like Culotta explained, the aim of these courses was to introduce students to the University community, even with all of the uncertainty surrounding the fall semester.
This was especially helpful for students who were deferring, who were still permitted to participate in these summer courses. This was true for Chase Howard ’24, who is taking the fall semester off but hopes to come to campus in the spring. He was enrolled in “Contemporary American Literature” over the summer.
“I’m feeling a little bit more included with the Wesleyan experience even if I’m not on campus or taking online classes,” Howard said.
Beyond the welcome to the University community, students also appreciated the ability to adjust to the college workload by focusing on one class as opposed to the typical four per semester.
“I think it really helped me coming into the fall semester,” Megan Bauerle ’24, who was enrolled in “Democracy to Autocracy”, said. “The course had a lot of reading which helped me prepare for the amount of reading in college.”
This response was common among students taking a variety of FYS, in terms of both reading and writing.
“It did give me a sneak peek of what college writing really was,” Nicole Allina ’24, who was also enrolled in “Contemporary American Literature”, said. “I think it really helped with my transition from high school to college.”
Associate Professor of English Rashida Shaw McMahon, who taught an FYS on playwright August Wilson, noted the positive impact of allowing new students to focus their energy on only one class. As such, she noticed an increase in student engagement.
“I would joke with people in my family and I would say that my students are paying attention to every comma on the page, every semicolon on the page, every pause…. ” Shaw McMahon said.
Even though Shaw McMahon’s course wasn’t new, the material was especially relevant this summer because of the Black Lives Matter protests, giving students the opportunity to connect the cultural significance of the playwright’s work with what they saw going on around them.
“I was really excited to teach August Wilson in conversation with all that had been happening that summer,” Shaw McMahon said. “We started the course at the end of June and so things had quieted down a bit, but they were still in recent memory and so many of the students throughout the course made reference to the protests and I also made reference from the very first day…”
Shaw McMahon also spoke to the importance of FYS and how rewarding it is to teach a group of students with a variety of interests and watch them come together to discuss a common topic.
“So the fact that students are thinking about being, you know, biochem majors and neuroscience majors or filmmakers or musicians, but they all have found themselves into this August Wilson course, right, that makes our experience a very rich one and it is a reflection of his writing right and the ways in which his writing is multidimensional,” Shaw McMahon said.
All in all, students and faculty believe the program accomplished what it set out to do: build community and help students transition to college amidst the pandemic. Furthermore, Culotta has confirmed that the overall success and positive feedback from students and professors alike has inspired the University to plan to continue these sessions in future summers.
Sophie Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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