the Undergraduate Mind: The First-Year
Experience from Three Perspectives
first semester was interesting and very different from any previous four-month
period of education that I have experienced. It felt like a whirlwind
while it was going on, but in retrospect it seems like a vast expanse
of time. I'm sure the changes in social and situational factors had powerfully
influential effects on my experience, but those aspects will remain secondary
in this analysis. I will focus on academic issues and in particular my
experience with the USEM format.
interested in all my classes during my first semester. That may not seem
like a shocking statement, but it is fairly significant in my mind. In
high school, I was not particularly engaged in many of my classes. It
was often a real struggle to force myself to complete assignments or do
readings. This has not been a big issue at college. I feel that this new
ease of self-motivation stems from a few factors. One is simply the difference
in the collegiate schedule. I often felt trapped at my high school, like
I had no escape; the education became forcible indoctrination. There was
so much wasted time when I was just twiddling my thumbs with boredom.
Now the education is happening all around me and it is incumbent upon
me to get up, get out, and satiate my curiosity. This is made even easier
when, like last semester, my classes really interested me. I found myself
connecting ideas from different fields and disciplines and being excited
by those connections. I would bring up an idea from my psychology class
in my USEM, or connect physics with poetry. My education felt more like
it belonged to me-it was my own little cohesive ball of exploration and
discovery that I could dribble up and down the court as I pleased. This
is a truly liberating feeling. I'm much less concerned with grades now
than in high school. At the same time I'm much more interested in the
process of academic exploration and the actual quality of the material.
I find myself questioning everything that does not feel right or seems
too easy, whereas in the past I would have simply accepted what I was
told and regurgitated it on cue.
experience was definitely one of the highlights of my first semester.
The topic was particularly interesting to me, and the class provided an
excellent forum for discussion. The class structure and size were very
similar to a typical class at my high school. This measure of familiarity
was nice as I eased into college life. It was also nice to be in a class
with only first-year students; I felt like we were all in the same boat.
Aside from the comforting nature of being among equals, it was also a
good opportunity to observe and understand a fairly representative cross
section of my Wahoo contemporaries. I must be interested in these people
because I have decided to associate myself with them in this academic
setting. They are a reflection of me, my goals, my dreams, etc. I get
to know them through some social exchanges, but mainly through the ways
they approach the material and the discussion. For someone like me who
is interested in people and their behavior, this is a fulfilling opportunity.
My USEM provided a great atmosphere for getting to know what made these
first-year Wahoos tick. We were guided by the texts and the professor
shaped the discussion in certain ways, but never to the point where individual
thought was hindered. This is very admirable; it must be hard to remain
objective and effectively unobtrusive as a professor. My one gripe with
the class was that it only met once a week for two hours. I feel like
there was a lot more depth to the topic that could have been explored
in a three-credit setting. All these factors influenced me to take another
USEM the following semester, which was different but fun in its own way.
was a nice change of pace from the typical, huge, freshman lecture class.
I understand that the large lecture classes are sometimes criticized for
being impersonal. I think that it can be easy to lose oneself in the back
row of one of these lectures, or to not even show up at all. Teaching
one of these classes well requires a truly skillful professor. Lucky for
me, U.Va. is full of very competent and excited teachers. I learned this
first-hand last semester in my huge Psychology lecture. The professor
was dynamic and captivating; I felt like he was speaking past the other
three hundred heads in the room and directly to me. Consequently, I didn't
miss a class and I'm now considering a Psych major. Also, discussion sections
for large classes provide opportunities to address individual concerns.
I think a mixture of large and small classes is healthy because it shows
the student that there are many venues for the pursuit of knowledge.
If a student
finds a class unbearable for any number of reasons and is having trouble
keeping up attendance then he should ask himself why he's bothered to
take the class at all. I feel like many students take classes with only
long-term goals in mind: the grade, the diploma, the job, etc. Such goals
are not bad by any means, but they can deflate the joy of learning. Higher
education should be undertaken for personal reasons rather than perceived
obligations. It can be a fun, fulfilling process in and of itself.