As incoming college students are deciding where they will spend their undergraduate years over the next few weeks, the Elliott School of International Affairs is unveiling a course for first-year students that will start with the incoming freshman class. This shift involves eliminating discussion sections for the required foundation class, Introduction to International Affairs, and replacing it with a one-credit course titled First Year Experience.
Introduction to International Affairs is the bread and butter of the Elliott School’s freshman course requirements. It’s hard to major in international affairs if students aren’t entirely sure what international affairs involves. This introduction course exists to clarify questions freshmen may have about what the major entails by giving them a taste of topics they will study, like conflict resolution and gender equality. Replacing the discussion section with the First Year Experience course has strong potential to help new students better prepare for their college years and professional life beyond GW – but it will need to fill the void of a missing discussion section by addressing content and program questions.
The new course will cover a variety of topics, including professional skills like writing a resume and cover letter, as well as identifying students’ strengths and interests in the field to help advance their academic and professional careers. In the course, students will meet with professors in small, 20-person seminars on a weekly basis.
As one of the top schools in the world for studying international affairs, the Elliott School prides itself on building leaders in the field. The new course will prepare students for future employment, but the course must also address international affairs concepts that were formerly covered in discussion sections in order to truly benefit students.
In addition to teaching concepts like leadership and ethics, the First Year Experience has an opportunity to be a venue for content questions and explain some of the more confusing aspects of the Elliott School. The new course should explain the differences between the 14 concentrations offered in the major. Deciding between so many options can be confusing, so students need an introductory course to explain the options so they can make an informed decision. I could have benefitted from more guidance in a course like this, because it took until sophomore year for me to realize that I wanted to concentrate in international development.
Introduction to International Affairs is taught in just less than an hour to large 250-person lectures. The course currently has an additional weekly 50-minute discussion section with five to 25 students, where students can ask their teaching assistants questions from the week’s lectures or readings. These discussions offer an opportunity to go into greater detail about some of the more confusing topics covered in the course.
In my experience, the discussion section was a helpful forum to break down complex issues, like the conflict in Syria, that are a needed baseline for future coursework. The smaller discussion section was also a more welcoming environment than the overwhelming lecture hall full of hundreds of students. The TAs’ abilities to translate tricky topics and my fellow students’ thoughtful questions created one of the most beneficial discussion sections I have taken and helped me gain a more comprehensive understanding of the material.
Eliminating the discussion section may create anxiety for students who do not understand a concept from class, and their only options to clear up confusion are asking a question during a 250-person or more lecture or attending office hours. Asking questions during lectures is also impractical because if everyone asked questions during those mere 50 minutes, there wouldn’t be enough time for the scheduled material. On the other hand, attending office hours is difficult for freshmen because professors can seem intimidating, and office hours are also frequently scheduled during common class times, which makes it challenging for students to attend without skipping another class. Without a time to fully grasp the major concepts, student could fall behind in their courses – and succeeding in the classroom is the first step to a prosperous career.
I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of the First Year Experience course, and I hope that it succeeds in better preparing Elliott School students for both their academic and professional careers. Although I’m sad to see the Introduction to International Affairs discussion section go, if the new course can provide a comprehensive explanation of concentrations and class concepts while helping students refine skills they will need in the professional world, the shift will be for the better.
Kris Brodeur, a sophomore double-majoring in international affairs and Latin American hemispheric studies, is a Hatchet columnist.
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