University 101

The nation's top first-year experience program had its roots in campus unrest

President Thomas F. Jones had a simple goal for a new course the university was creating in the early 1970s: teach students to love the University of South Carolina.

If they care deeply about their university, he reasoned, they would not riot as they had in May 1970, when a group of students ransacked part of the Osborne building, occupied the first floor and trapped Jones and some members of the Board of Trustees on the second floor. The students, protesting the Vietnam War, perceived social injustices and local campus issues, fled when National Guard troops arrived several hours later.  As the protesting students and a crowd of onlookers moved to the Horseshoe, they were followed by police and guardsmen, who used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Tensions on campus remained high for several days.

Soon after, Jones and the administration sought out student advice for ways to improve the university community. Those conversations culminated in a retreat at Camp Gravatt near Aiken in October 1971, a meeting that allowed students to voice frustrations about the academic atmosphere at the university. Among the suggestions from the Gravatt conference was an overhaul of the university’s freshman program, and a faculty committee was formed to put together a plan to improve the academic orientation of freshmen.

In the summer of 1972, the faculty senate approved a trial course: “University 101, the Student in the University.” The course would attempt to build trust and open lines of communication among students, faculty, staff and administrators. It was taught by newly trained faculty and staff members and offered to a few hundred students. Forty-seven years later, University 101 is still being taught — now to about 80 percent of incoming freshmen — helping new students adjust to college life and learn about all the university has to offer. 

After guiding University 101 for two years, President Jones appointed John Gardner, an assistant professor in the College of General Studies and one of the course’s first instructors, as faculty director. Gardner ran University 101 for the next 25 years.

“It works because it’s directly focused on what new students need. It’s successful because we are still teaching them to love the university,” Gardner says. “It’s also been successful because the whole university owns it. It’s had broad input. It collaborates with all of the different schools along with Student Affairs. It has never lost sight that it was a university-wide initiative.”

The No. 1 predictor of a student’s decision to stay (in college) is a sense of belonging.

Dan Friedman, director, University 101 programs

Another reason for its longevity? Assessment data show that it works. Students who take U101 return to school for their sophomore year and graduate from the university at higher rates than students who don’t take the course as freshmen. What started as a freshman experiment helped birth an international movement called the first-year experience, with Carolina earning national recognition for its work with students, peer leaders and instructors. U.S. News and World Report has consistently recognized University 101 and the first-year experience as a “program to look for.” This year, for the first time in nearly 20 years, U.S. News included a numerical ranking for first-year experience programs and named South Carolina the top first-year student experience among the nation’s public universities.

Dan Friedman, who has been director of the program for the past 11 years, says University 101 becomes more important each year as the university continues to grow. More than 6,000 new students started classes on the Columbia campus this fall, and there are 268 sections of U101, with dozens of sections geared to specific majors or programs. Each section has just 19 students.

“How does Carolina feel so small and so personal when we are so large? University 101 is one of the primary drivers of that,” Friedman says.

University 101 offers an opportunity for students to quickly connect with classmates. And along with a staff or faculty member teaching each class, there also is a peer leader who can be a mentor and resource for first-year students.

“The No. 1 predictor of a student’s decision to stay (in college) is a sense of belonging,” Friedman says. “The whole thing is about community. The No. 1 reason our students tell us they’re taking this course is they want to make friends. The second reason they want to take the course is they want to learn about everything this university has to offer them. We give students what they need — whether that’s information, resources or support — at the time when they need it and when they are most ready for it.”

Over the years, as students’ needs change, the topics covered by the course have changed, too. The class is tweaked each year, and every five years the curriculum is rewritten to ensure all facets are still relevant to today’s students. While students who take the course have a higher retention rate than those who don’t, the numbers are even higher among students from low-income homes, first-generation college students and those who have a lower antici­pated GPA.

For the first-year students who arrived in Columbia this fall, University 101 is there to offer what Friedman calls “an extended onboarding experience.”

“We can’t just say to a person, ‘Welcome to the University of South Carolina. Now go be successful.’ We wouldn’t say to a new faculty member, ‘You’re bright. You’ll figure it out.’ So why would we do that with our most precious resources, which are our students?” Friedman says. “University 101 is a way to demonstrate respect to our students and to maximize the potential of those students in a new environment. It’s not a course about academic survival. It’s not about surviving; it’s about thriving.”

This article previously appeared as part of a feature on the origins of prominent university programs and initiatives inTIMES, the UofSC Office of Communications and Public Affairs’ quarterly magazine for faculty and staff.

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