As Student Association President Ashley Le’s term comes to a close, she is taking the first steps to advocate for what was once her top priority: implementing a first-year experience course.
After the SA issued a survey last semester gauging interest for the course – which would include information about navigating the District and managing budgets – Le said she has used the results to prompt early discussions with administrators about rolling out a mandatory class. Le will graduate at the end of the semester, but officials said they will continue to conduct research about similar classes at other universities in the hopes of eventually implementing a similar program.
About 40 percent of freshmen who responded to the SA survey indicated that they would take the course if given the opportunity, and about 30 percent said they would consider taking the course, according to a report obtained by The Hatchet.
“A comprehensive, University-wide first-year experience class would be beneficial for first-year students,” Le said in an email. “With the goal of community building in mind, a first-year experience course would provide first-year students with a cohort of their peers who are experiencing many of the same challenges.”
The survey found that about 40 percent of freshmen have considered transferring out of GW in their first year because of issues like a lack of community and affordability. Le said the percentage is “alarming” and could indicate that the University does not provide enough support for first-year students in navigating the dining plan or finding their niche at school.
“All of these challenges make it more difficult for students to feel like they have a home at GW,” Le said.
The majority of respondents indicated that GW helped students transition from high school to college, and most freshmen said they found community once they arrived on campus through academic programs and student organizations.
Le said the results show that a first-year experience course would be “beneficial” for students, but the effort to implement the class will outlive her tenure because she has spent the year conducting research and is preparing to graduate.
SJ Matthews, the SA president-elect, said she will continue conversations about the “feasibility” of a first-year experience course with faculty and administrators, but she has not planned out first steps to implement the course.
“I’ve seen it work well at some peer institutions and can see it working well here at GW,” Matthews said.
Le said that over the past year, SA leaders have shifted their focus to implementing other community-building initiatives for freshmen, like District Connections, a program that offers first-year students access to free events around D.C., and the International Friendship Portal, an initiative that connects international students with mentors.
“These initiatives began to ensure that students can find a holistic living and learning community, better quality of living, as well as personalized support in different aspects of their student life until a first-year course is created,” Le said.
Le said she has discussed the first-year experience course with officials and faculty including University President Thomas LeBlanc, Provost Forrest Maltzman and Philip Wirtz, the chair of the Faculty Senate Educational Policy Committee.
Dean of the Student Experience Cissy Petty said officials have held “early discussions” about implementing a first-year experience course and will conduct research on similar programs to evaluate how a class could work at GW. Five of the University’s 12 peer institutions, including Boston and New York universities, offer first-year experience courses, but Le said she based her idea for the course off American University’s seminar that advises freshmen on topics like mental health and time management.
“We’ll continue to do research even after Ashley graduates to see if in the coming years we can integrate a course into a student’s first-year experience,” Petty said in an email. “Maybe, in a few years, Ashley can come back and be a guest speaker in one of the classes.”
Petty said officials have focused more this academic year on bolstering programming for first-year students, like District Connections, and overseeing a switch from Colonial Inauguration to new student orientation, which will take place in the fall. She said Le and other SA leaders have provided input on each of the programs.
“We are grateful for the support of the SA and their willingness to be ambassadors for the student experience,” she said in an email.
Petty declined to say what steps would be required to implement a first-year course.
Yannik Omictin, the SA’s chief of cabinet, said he was not directly involved in planning the first-year experience course but spent time helping officials plan the District Connections program and map out renovations to GW’s largest freshman residence hall “with the understanding that these will lead to a first-year experience course.”
He said a uniform first-year experience course across all schools can offer freshmen a “common experience.” The School of Business, the Elliott School of International Affairs and the School of Engineering and Applied Science are currently the only schools that offer mandatory first-year courses, which cover topics like leadership development and networking.
“It’s not just an academic challenge – it’s a community-building one, so it forces us to engage with as many members of our big GW family as possible,” Omictin said. “It’ll take time to get exactly right, and I’m glad we made significant progress this year.”