She is a self-described Harry Potter super fan who has read all the books, watched all the movies, visited the theme park and got the T-shirt, er, the wand and robe.
“Everyone who knows me associates me with Harry Potter,” Vinson, a first-year chemistry student, said.
So you can imagine her delight while perusing the course schedule and registering for her first semester at Florida Tech to see a reimagined, themed adaptation of Florida Tech’s first-year student staple, University Experience: FYE 1000—Harry Potter … a class for students interested in “Quidditch, muggles, butterbeer and magic!”
This fall, the university rolled out this new take on its age-old graduation requirement to excite and engage incoming students while building a foundation for success.
University Experience (UE) is a one-credit seminar that introduces first-time-in-college students to Florida Tech resources and the expectations of college life. Activity-based course work covers everything from study habits and time management to campus engagement and conflict resolution.
Traditionally, the experience was informational, yet unremarkable. But, staff in the First Year Experience Office, which administers the course, saw an opportunity to super-charge student engagement through topical trends—rolling out nearly a dozen themed UE sections to entice Disney fanatics and Enginerds alike.
Interested in preparing for a zombie apocalypse? There’s a section for that too.
“The focus is more on fun and integration,” explains Jessica Ha, associate director of transfer and transition programs, who coordinates the curriculum.
With an enhanced emphasis on building a sense of community and connection among incoming students, the seminar is designed to promote student involvement, which according to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) is directly linked to student success.
And enthusiasm abounds.
For example, the zombie apocalypse camp filled in just one day, prompting the opening and repeated frenzy for a second section.
Many Potter patrons clicked well before classes even began.
Vinson connected with some of her fellow classmates through the Florida Tech Class of 2020 Facebook group, an online community linking incoming students with their peers. She met them in real life on the first day of Orientation.
“I’ve found that a lot of people who have the same UE section end up having the same outside interests too,” said Lauren Ziegler, a biomedical science premed student and one of Vinson’s Potter peers. “With Harry Potter, we like a lot of fantasy books and have other similar interests.”
The students say the themed section is also a lot more interesting than a traditional section might be.
While the core content is the same, themed sections add a topical twist. For example, Harry Potter students bond over quandaries like: would you rather brush Lucius Malfoy’s hair every day for a year or have Moaning Myrtle in your toilet for a year? While zombie apocalypse students are immersed in a game to navigate campus securing food, medicine and weapons without becoming infected with a T-virus.
“My Harry Potter students are so friendly with each other and know each other so well they really engage quickly, work together and come up with the answers.” —Ashley Becker
“My Zombie Apocalypse UE sections are really fun,” says instructor Jared Campbell. “Even though they have a crazy theme, they are truly about motivating students to understand the college environment, help them develop study skills and find the resources they need to succeed.”
“I’m making the case that the affliction that turns people into brain-eating zombies is somehow combated by developing good study habits, specifically in mathematics and chemistry, two classes that directly impact our retention rates.”
Ashley Becker, instructor of the Harry Potter section as well as a traditional non-themed section, also sees promise with the playfulness.
“I’m seeing a benefit to what we’ve done with the themed sections even in non-themed assignments,” she says. “My Harry Potter students are so friendly with each other and know each other so well they really engage quickly, work together and come up with the answers. The students are engaged in the topic because they are already engaged in the class.”
“When we heard sophomores were interested in retaking University Experience to enroll in a themed section, we knew we must be doing the right thing,” laughs Ha.
Building a Village
While the new UE experience is helping students make connections and build their home away from home during their first semester on campus, their support through the First Year Experience (FYE) Office begins much earlier—in fact, as soon as they enroll.
Established five years ago to facilitate first-year student transitions, the FYE Office quickly grew to support transfer students as well. Today, a team of six advisors, led by executive director Ray Bonhomme, supports the onboarding of new Panthers through Orientation, registration and advising, a trip series and the freshmen honor society.
In tandem with the UE makeover, the university also revamped the freshmen registration process this academic year. Rather than block scheduling new students into the first handful of courses within their chosen major, students now register themselves with the guidance of FYE advisors.
“Now, students come in with a much larger skill set of how to add and drop classes and manage their own schedule as opposed to having everything done for them,” explains Ha.
It’s one more step in empowering students for success.
Beginning as early as April leading up to their first fall semester, FYE advisors contact students, coach them through the registration process and prep them for Orientation.
“They may not have met everyone personally,” says Bonhomme, “but the students have had contact with their FYE advisor; they have a name, an office location, a phone number and an email address.”
When they arrive on campus for Orientation, they already have a support system in place.
Then, as their first academic year comes to a close, students transition to faculty advisors—more college-savvy, well-connected and prepared for new horizons.
“Ultimately, we strive to connect students to the university,” says Ha. “We hope students finish off their first year with positive academic and social experiences.”
As it turns out, one credit of whimsy is proving magical in fostering that connection.
Success for a Lifetime
“Student success has always been at the heart of what we do,” says Monica Baloga, senior vice president for academics and provost.
Now, under the leadership of president T. Dwayne McCay, that core value has expanded to emphasize a lifetime of success, not just four years or a single academic milestone, explains Baloga.
“I think this adds a deeper dimension—to really engage a student’s mind—to reach both their academic and personal goals,” she says.
To this end, the university is establishing a Council on Student Success to focus on success beyond the classroom. How do students connect emotionally, intellectually, culturally?
The council will evaluate a holistic model for student success, identifying extracurricular opportunities for engagement. Areas of focus include living-learning communities, an honors college and cultural competence initiatives—efforts designed to develop the breadth and depth of a student’s educational experience throughout his or her university tenure.
If the success of the University Experience transformation is any indication, these new endeavors are sure to delight.