New Required Course Addresses Needs Identified by Students

Jen Jacobsen ’95, Lakesia Johnson, Mark Levandoski, Maure Smith- Benanti, First-Year Experience: Connections Course Leadership Team

For the first time in 50 years, Grinnell faculty have approved a new requirement as part of the individually advised curriculum. The new course, First-Year Experience: Connections, is offered during the spring semester to first-year students. The course is discussion-based and experiential and introduces students to important ideas about wellness, diversity, and respectful dialogue across difference. It delivers on the College’s stated mission and core values.

The FYE course was first proposed in 2016, arising out of work by the Task Force on Residential Learning, which was appointed in 2015 by then-President Raynard S. Kington. Task force members learned that stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties are the top four negative impacts on academics and proposed a curriculum around topics like wellness, coping strategies, diversity, and social justice.

We want all students to be healthy and well and to feel a sense of belonging, inclusive of their identities and backgrounds. Created by staff in Student Affairs, we (the First-Year Experience leadership team) delivered a developmentally appropriate curriculum for 18- and 19-year-olds that includes six content modules: personal sustainability and help-seeking, exploring personal identities, dialogue across difference, diversity and social justice, building a culture of respect, and mentorship.

We piloted the course iteratively for four years, and during the final two years, all first-year students were included. We conducted a comprehensive assessment that included feedback from both students and course facilitators (the course is taught by faculty and staff), and we made adjustments based on that assessment. Overall, student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

In fall 2020, 74% of our students said they’re more confident about identifying strategies for coping and self-care, 85% said they were more likely to use resources at Grinnell that can support their academic success, and 73% said they’re more likely to use resources that can support their personal well-being.

At the conclusion of the fall 2020 pilot, 75% of our students self-reported that they would be more interested in having conversations with people who are different from them. They also communicated that since they’ve taken the course, they’ve had meaningful conversations with people who are different from themselves and are more likely to recognize bias when it happens. One student shared that “my goal is to be as unbiased and respectful as possible and learning about identity and microaggressions gave me some new information to work with.”

Grinnell has a spectrum of supportive resources, but not all students use them. Two of many of the goals of this course are to increase the perceived benefits and reduce barriers to accessing this array of resources, and our efforts have achieved success so far. “The fact that [the course] exists at all makes me feel content about being a part of the Grinnell community because it shows that my school is concerned about every student’s well-being and individual success,” said another student.

We see this new course as one aspect of the overall arc of the first-year experience. The arc begins when students are admitted and continues through optional preorientations to New Student Orientation in August, quickly followed by their First-Year Tutorial class fall semester. We see the FYE: Connections course as a launching point into the second year and a first step toward a campus that appreciates our students’ holistic abilities to be their whole, authentic selves.

We are excited that the FYE: Connections course is already creating positive change where students feel included, are gaining skills to have meaningful and respectful conversations about difference, and are able to give themselves permission to be well and seek the resources they need to thrive at Grinnell.

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