First Things First

Shaking the High School Out

Deborah Dudley

Here are some questions: Should a government be allowed to spy on their own population? Do you care if the government is listening to your phone calls, or if it is monitoring your emails and/or online activity? Does privacy even exist in the digital age?

Are these questions not for you?

Perhaps you are more drawn to the idea of ecological entrepreneurship and developing restorative agriculture—models that promote species diversity, build topsoil, and cleanse water systems. Can a better understanding of ecosystem processes thresholds hold the key to a 21st-century rural economic engine while restoring the Earth?

Still not interested?

Maybe you would be more comfortable applying multidisciplinary critical thinking, pattern recognition, logic and deduction to solving murder mysteries. Or attempting to wrestle with the following questions: Is the propensity for violence inherent in humans?  Is war inevitable?  Could studying and practicing ways to resolve conflicts and create a more just society help to bring about a better world for all. Or, is this a pipe dream? 

Found something?

Wait, we’re not done. Now, join your peers asking those same questions for the semester in one residence hall, and invite each other to wrestle with and articulate these questions as a living community.

Welcome to the First-Year Program (FYP) at St. Lawrence University. And no, you’re not in high school any more.

As one of St. Lawrence’s veteran FYP faculty, Robert Thacker, Charles A. Dana Professor of Canadian studies and English, recently wrote in the online journal for liberal arts education The Hechinger Report: “Like most liberal arts colleges, St. Lawrence University starts its incoming students off with a course explicitly designed to effect the transition from high school to college. To shake high school out of them, as I like to say.”

 Unlike most universities, the current FYP framework at St. Lawrence is the result of a 30-year exploration of combining living and learning. The combination helps students make an effective transition to college and equip each of them with sharpened abilities for oral and written communications, but, more importantly, it fosters a sense of community and spark a keen lifelong interest in learning.

Thacker explains, “High school is over: it’s time to get serious about discovering their own way. Just four years: shaking them hard, the first-year program gets them going.”

“Learning happens everywhere,” explains Jenny Hansen, professor of philosophy and associate dean of the First-Year Program. “The FYP is not about specific content so much as it is about acquiring the best skill set to be a life-long learner. The job here is to create intelligent citizens that are going to run the world someday, and we need to give them the skills needed so they can create a world that we all want to live in.” For Hansen that means innovation on all sides of the living and learning dynamic.

Essentially, the program is a liberal arts boot camp focused on the foundational skills of critical thinking, excellence in written and oral communications, and research. Spies and Surveillance in the Modern Age; Ecosystem, Eggplant, and Entrepreneurship; Murder and Mayhem; and, Peace Begins with Me; the courses that furnished the questions above, are just four of the 19 FYP courses within nine themes for 2016-2017. (See complete list of course descriptions at

History of the FYP at St. Lawrence

The fall 1987 incoming class were the first to be enrolled in what was then the “Freshman Program.” Faculty concerns for the prevalence of alcohol interfering with students’ academic performance and the dominant role of the Greek system on campus were motivating factors in exploring other models of learning communities and successful transitions from high school to college. The FYP’s roots go back as far as the Basic Academic Skills (BASK) program, developed in 1979, which later combined with the East College experiment of integration between academic life and residential life under University President W. Lawrence Gulick in 1983. The East College experiment enrolled approximately 50 students who lived together, took a common course with extensive writing requirements, along with introduction to research methods supported by faculty from several departments in both teaching and advising.

East College served as the model for President Gulick’s proposal to establish more comprehensive residential colleges at St. Lawrence. His intention was to develop something that would distinguish St. Lawrence from other liberal arts institutions. This prompted more interdepartmental faculty committees that pressed for innovation. By 1985, faculty efforts to build alternative curricular structures emerged, and out of the push came the “Freshman Program,” which faculty voted to institute as required curriculum starting in 1987.

By 1992, what was a common course across all colleges was replaced by a variety of faculty-designed courses mixing contemporary topics with core principles of acquiring advanced degree of literacy and competency. This reflected the St. Lawrence values of an interdisciplinary, intercultural approach to learning, and a recognition of the fundamentally social nature of knowledge. Residential programming began evolving as well to complement the experience.

After 30 years, the FYP continues to evolve to keep pace with the competitive demands of higher education and to reflect the changes and growth of the St. Lawrence community. It remains a faculty-driven initiative to this day, allowing for creative scholarship and community outreach through curriculum.

Program impact

Along with the academic rigor of the FYP, many of the courses incorporate a Community Based Learning component, or CBL, which can be transformational for many students as well as serve to strengthen University ties with the surrounding community.

In Fall 2016, Brown College’s FYP students facilitated a book club with inmates at the St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility (SLCC) as part of Making a Difference: The Role of Active Citizenship taught by Hansen and Liz Regosin, professor of history. Another group of students continue to facilitate a new program called “Community Game Night” in which students play games with the men and women serving time in the local facility. Students often continue their work in the community beyond the FYP course. Maddie Lares ’19 organizes a coloring/mindfulness workshop two days a week and Margaret Mauch ’17 is teaching Zumba. 

The students of MacKay College work on the Sustainability Semester site’s farm and connect what they learn in their Ecosystems, Eggplant and Entrepreneurship course immediately when they step outside. 

“To really be able to deal with large-scale environmental problems you have to have a complex approach looking at many different factors. This is where the perspective of the environment, agriculture and business interact,” says MacKay College faculty Sara Ashpole, assistant professor of environmental studies who teaches the course with support from Samuel Joseph, sustainability program director and homesteader-in-residence.

The Watertown Daily Times caught up with the Herrick College First-Year Program which has been researching murder trials that took place in St. Lawrence County around 100 years ago.

Titled “Murder and Mayhem,” students in the course, taught by Diane Exoo, conducted research at the County Clerk’s office. They examined original trial documents and met with town and village historians. After gathering information, the students then used a liberal arts foundation (science, sociology, psychology, history, etc.) to create plausible narratives about whether or not the right suspect was prosecuted.

For many it is the relationships that represent the true return on investment. Thomas Allerton ’19 enrolled in Holmes College’s course, titled Sherlock Holmes and the Art and Science of Reasoning. He says, “The class was phenomenal, and I will never forget it, but perhaps even better than the class were the relationships that came out of it. After graduating from high school, I was intimidated by the idea of having to start over and build up a new network of friends.”

Evidence supports that the FYP helps students cement relationships with faculty and advisors, as well as their peers. They begin to view their residence hall as a learning space integrated into the entirety of their academic experience.

 “Focus groups with students confirmed these outcomes,” says Christopher Marquart, assistant dean of Student Life and director of Residence Life and Housing, whose Ph.D. work researches the relationship between residential learning communities and institutional culture.


The investment required to maintain this comprehensive programming is significant, not only in administration and staffing both the academic and residential components, but also in maintaining the highest quality across all disciplines. As with any program that strives to remain ahead of the curve, there are challenges, most importantly recruiting and retaining tenured faculty involvement as the First-Year program demands often competes with their individual research and departmental priorities.

With each generation, the challenges take different shapes. The ubiquitous companionship of smart phones and tablets in the lives of current students has both the potential to enhance as well as interfere with effective communications. “The dialog and interactions between students has now collided with digital devices and changed the discourse,” says Hansen.  It has become a contemporary hurdle for the FYP program to reinsert the value of face-to-face dialog in order to circumvent the noise and distraction of social media.

Another challenge includes the University’s increasingly diverse student body, along with the focus on international student engagement. While dialog amongst a variety of global and cultural perspectives of students from different zip codes, ethnic, and religious backgrounds is what makes the FYP a rich learning environment, it also requires that sensitivity to the needs of St. Lawrence’s expanding community be integrated into the evolving academic and residential solutions of the FYP each year to maximize success of every student.

As many alumni know first-hand, the interpersonal dynamics—both positive and negative—that develop in the residential arena have the potential to strengthen trust, which can lead to deeper discussion in the classroom, or create obstacles to the curriculum. This presents unique communications challenges for the faculty and learning community to navigate—a precursor to life in the mix of humanity beyond the St. Lawrence experience.

Once the first semester concludes, the second semester emphasizes individual student research projects that put the skills acquired to use. Students dig deeper into research, writing and oral communication skills in one of approximately 40 research-oriented First-Year Seminars (FYS). They indicate their specific areas of interest and are placed in their FYS prior to registering for their other spring courses. The work of the first semester is complemented with explicit instruction in research, as well as a continuation of the writing and speaking development from the fall.

The Long View

The full impact of the FYP, however, is not registered until students join the alumni ranks. St. Lawrence affinity and engagement often stems from their initial immersion into the culture and values of St. Lawrence on their very first day through their FYP and residential colleges.

Hansen is adamant that the next generation of the FYP emerges through a continuation of faculty-led innovations
but she also sees partnership with alumni and Laurentian Engagement programming, such as mentoring and Laurentians in Residence and LINC, which are key to ensuring the student preparation for the world beyond their undergraduate experience. Many alumni have had time to reflect on how formative their residential college was in shaping who they are today. They may credit their FYP in forging the relationships closest to them in their Laurentian circles as well as in helping them embrace the rigors of the liberal education in preparation for their post-college professional lives. With the next generation of first-year programming, today’s students will be ready to join these alumni ranks. They will be ready for the “college” to be shaken out of them. And they will be ready to become the citizens that will shape the world that we all want to live in.