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Autumn 2003 | Volume 26, Number 4 | Features

Helping Freshmen Succeed

University Seminars Teach College Survival Skills to Incoming Students

REGARDLESS OF THEIR INTENDED majors and future goals, all incoming Seattle Pacific University freshmen have something in common: They enroll in a University Seminar. With course titles as varied as “Other People, Other Faiths,” “Life From the E.R.” and “The History of Baseball,” the University Seminar (USEM) is the first of seven required courses in the SPU Common Curriculum. Students also take three University Core (UCOR) and three University Foundations (UFDN) courses during their academic career.

"The University Seminars emphasize the transition to college in social, emotional and academic areas,” says Cynthia Price, associate vice president for curriculum and assessment. “They are an intentional effort to make sure that freshmen succeed.”

USEM professors design a specific interdisciplinary course through which they teach general college skills such as in-depth research, essay writing and oral presentations. The seminars are also the place where students begin to build relationships with other students and a key faculty member. Each seminar is limited to 20 students, and classmates go on to attend their freshman UCOR and UFDN classes together. USEM professors serve as academic advisors to their seminar students for at least the first year.

These two distinctives put freshman Shauna Damgaard at ease. A graduate of a small Christian high school in Federal Way, Washington, Damgaard was intimidated by the idea of larger classes filled with strangers. But her USEM, “The Dynamics of Vocation: Perceiving and Responding to Your Life’s Call,” quickly became her favorite class. Taught by Instructor in Theology Doug Koskela, the USEM “gave me the opportunity to be more confident,” she says. Incorporated into discussions about the course texts, Frederick Buechner’sNow and Then and Jerry Sittser’s Discovering God’s Will, were lectures on time management, research skills and research papers. “This class makes me feel more at peace,” Damgaard says. “I love it.”

Begun in 1998, Seattle Pacific’s innovative Common Curriculum is bearing fruit. “We have seen the number of students who return for their sophomore year jump about 12 percent since USEMs began,” Price says. “There are a lot of factors involved, but we think this is a big piece of it.”

The majority of American colleges have a required freshman course, but Seattle Pacific takes the idea much further. “Our USEMs are part of a full Common Curriculum, one of the few four-year general education programs of its kind in the country,” explains Price. “This is a powerful benefit to students as they weigh their future academic majors and vocations.”

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