USP’s maiden voyage sparks big changes for first-year students

The fall 2013 semester at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh marks the start of the highly anticipated University Studies Program (USP), a reform of the University’s general education program. This new 41-credit program is the first change in general education that the University has seen in more than 40 years.

“These are major changes we’re making,” said Debbie Gray-Patton, assistant director of the First-Year Experience (FYE). “There are so many people who this is really impacting.”

Incoming students now experience smaller class sizes, themed classes and the exploration of “signature questions” that get them thinking about the world around them and how it connects with their studies.

“The hallmark of the program is our focus on first-year students and increasing student retention,” assistant political science professor Tracy Slagter said.

First-year students often arrive on campus with butterflies, worries and questions, wondering if they’ll fit in, if they’ll succeed and if they will be able to form relationships. The USP directly addresses these concerns and takes into consideration the modern college student.

During their first semester, students will be enrolled in their first Quest class, capped at 25 freshmen students. The small class replaces the freshmen pit classes, which often are intimidating and don’t allow first-year students to develop initial connections with their professors and other students.

With a variety of Quest I classes available, students can pick topics that vary from the geography of coffee to the origin of pirates. These are subjects that UWO senior and peer mentor Joe Infusino-Braun, of De Forest, believes are sure to lure students in.

“This is how they’re redefining general education… These are the topics that are going to interest people, they’re going to have this initial hook,” Braun said.

During this first set of classes, students also will have the benefit of learning from others who have “been there, done that” through the guidance of a trained peer mentor. Gray-Patton has played a major role in integrating the USP into the University and hiring dedicated students to help make incoming first-year students’ transition easier.

The team of students is made up of 15 ambassadors and 72 peer mentors. The ambassadors’ original role was to educate themselves about the USP in order to spread the word to faculty members and students about the program. These ambassadors also were hired to help hire and train a group of peer mentors and, now that the program has begun, also act as peer mentors themselves.

The peer mentors sit in on the students’ Quest I classes once a week in order to make themselves readily available to students and to make better connections.

Senior Austin Pippin, of Racine, believes that his role as a peer mentor is integral for first-year students who are often hesitant about approaching a professor with questions they may have.

“I can be a medium from the students to the professor or give students the resources they need,” he said.

Pippin was able to see the positive results of the USP within the first week of classes, when he was approached by a first-year student and asked for advice about scheduling classes, joining clubs and becoming more involved.

Junior and lead student ambassador Molly Merrill, of Oshkosh, said that peer mentors can help the first-year students adapt to a new lifestyle.

“The peer mentors are there to help students get acclimated with the University, to understand what the Math Lab is, or what the Center for Academic Resources does for you,” Merrill said. “We tell them to go to Titan Nights, because as a freshman you may be a little scared, you’re out of your element, you’re not really sure what everything is all about.”

These resources were developed to help freshmen students succeed in their first year and throughout their college careers.

“I think they should understand campus resources and know that it’s not a bad student who goes to seek out campus resources, but that the best students are going to go,” Slagter said.

Gaining knowledge about campus resources in addition to developing a connection with the campus itself are both important aspects of a first-year student’s success at UWO, and the USP addresses both of these through the help of the peer mentors. Peer mentors are vital to the development of first-year students and provide them with the personal connection of someone who has already experienced what UWO has to offer.

The peer mentors help guide first-year students through USP with the intention of providing students with the resources they need to be successful and the skills they will need throughout life as they pursue their dream careers.

“Undoubtedly, these connections will enhance their time here at UW Oshkosh and perhaps carry into their futures,” said peer mentor and UWO senior Sarah Kofler, of Prentice. “Students are responding to the program with excitement– they understand how these connections will provide them with the best education possible.”

As UWO begins the journey of “out with the old and in with the new,” first-year students are already reaping the benefits of the USP.

“They’re engaged and they’re talking to each other and they’re making friends,” Merrill said. “They know each other and they’re getting involved.”

The most rewarding part for Kofler has been watching the students enter their class for the first time. “They are eager to find out more about the USP, are eager to get to know each other and eager to embark on this educational experience,” she said.

Waving the USP off on its maiden voyage, Gray-Patton, Slagter and the ambassadors and peer mentors are looking forward to seeing the positive effects it has on UWO students and their future success.

“To quote my old supervisor, former Dean of Students Jim Chitwood, ‘We want to make sure first-year students are becoming second-year students.’ Really, that’s the bottom line; getting them what they need to be successful and stick around and feel like this is where they belong,” Gray-Patton said.

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