25 years and counting: Reflecting on First-Year Seminar

Twenty-five years ago, First-Year Seminar (FYS) was created to be the foundation for the entire Wheaton experience for all incoming students, both academically and in terms of building a sense of community. The subject matter of these small-group discussion courses has constantly evolved to accommodate the scholarly and personal interests of professors as well as the needs of students. The goals have remained the same—to inspire enthusiastic, intellectually curious students; to introduce them to high standards and expectations; and to help them negotiate the transition to emerging adulthood. Here, we explore three examples that highlight the potential of FYS. And longtime classics professor and FYS coordinator Joel Relihan provides a personal reflection.

Minding the possibilities

-In 2008, Professor of Education Mary Lee Griffin began teaching the FYS “Edge of Forever: Waking Up to Who We Are and What We Do,” which incorporates mindfulness through reading, writing, meditation, guided visualization and yoga. At the time, she had no idea how far-reaching the impact would be, particularly for two students—Caitlin Vomastek ’12 and Raphael “Raffi” Sweet ’12—who were in that first class.

From day one, the students and Griffin had their own expectations. Vomastek, who practiced yoga and meditation, just wanted to learn more about how both could be used in a classroom setting to teach children. Sweet wanted the opportunity to establish a personal mindfulness routine while drawing connections between the practice and the assigned literature. And Griffin wanted to tap into her scholarship while providing an academically stimulating course that supported students during their initial months at Wheaton.

The experience far exceeded all of their expectations.

Griffin gained two research partners in Vomastek and Sweet, who have worked with her since fall 2008, leading mindfulness sessions in local elementary schools and collecting qualitative data. Last spring, the two students completed a mindfulness-focused independent study project that resulted in the creation of a website for college students that offers audio mindfulness practices. The three of them together are serving as advisors to senior Liza Detenber, who is conducting a psychology research project. And this semester Sweet, Detenber and Griffin are working on a school-based research project at Paul Cuffee School in Providence, R.I.

The FYS led Vomastek to a music therapy internship at Sounding Joy Music Therapy in Honolulu, Hawaii, in summer 2010. She then was a child-life intern at Tufts’ Floating Hospital for Children in Boston in the summer of 2011, guiding meditation and breathing techniques for children undergoing procedures and experiencing distress in the hospital. As a result, she recently was hired as a paid child-life assistant.

“The FYS not only expanded my knowledge about mindfulness practices, but opened up doors for me to work with Professor Griffin on her research,” says Vomastek, a psychology major who plans to become a certified child-life specialist. “I was so fascinated by her work. I developed a great relationship with her. I am grateful for her companionship, guidance and support. It was a wonderful experience that I truly feel has influenced me during my time at Wheaton. I will carry this knowledge, experience and friendship with her for the rest of my life.”

-Similar opportunities have unfolded for Sweet. In the fall of 2010, he studied in Bhutan, where having a basic understanding of meditation and other mindful practices provided him with a foundation on which to view and integrate himself into Bhutanese culture,which is almost exclusively Buddhist. This academic year, he has been acting as a teaching assistant and technical advisor for Griffin’s current FYS, helping to create digital stories that fuse technology, personal narratives and mindfulness. He also has been offering mindfulness “services” to students on campus to help them de-stress and relax, especially as they prepare for exams.

“My FYS proved to be an invaluable tool in establishing my undergraduate mind-set and motivating me to set and accomplish countless goals throughout my time at Wheaton. I have found myself drawing connections to mindfulness practice in almost every book I’ve read since,” says Sweet.

“During the summer after my sophomore year, I worked as an advertising/marketing intern for the Lionheart Foundation. This group is responsible for establishing literature-based curriculum for at-risk youth and incarcerated individuals. One central tactic throughout this program is the use of meditation and other mindful activities to promote personal growth and empathy. With the knowledge from my FYS, I was able to better understand the structure of this curriculum, which no doubt aided me in marketing it to the public.

“In the spirit of Wheaton’s Connections program, I’ve seen myself come full circle—beginning freshman year with my FYS, connecting it to other courses and my study abroad experience and, finally, now working with students in the very same FYS during my senior year.”

A learning stage

-In the soft glow of houselights, Professor Stephanie Burlington Daniels sits in the audience seats of the Experimental Theatre coaching students on their final projects and research papers for her FYS, “Theatre and Social Change.”

“I want socially relevant and personal projects. Take authority and talk about an issue that you find important,” she tells them. “The higher the risk, the greater the payoff. The more this means to you, the better this will be.”

Sounds like she’s talking about more than theater. The Class of 1997 alum is in the rare position of knowing both sides of FYS—first as a student and now as a teacher—and the power of the lessons the experience can offer.

As a student, she took the FYS “Who’s News, What’s News” with Professor Paula Krebs. The class scoured magazines and newspapers each day and analyzed how gender and other stereotypes were used to classify groups and potentially manipulate people.

“The FYS taught us how to be college students and what kind of critical thinking would be required of us as we progressed,” says Daniels. “It also set up the student-advisor role and taught us how important that relationship is to your success at Wheaton, helping to navigate and articulate who and what you want to be and do with your college career. When I came to Wheaton to teach in the Theatre Department, I was inspired to teach FYS because of Paula and the incredible time I had in her class that first semester.”

-Now Daniels uses theater to create dialogue around issues that cause conflict by working through plays that focus on issues ranging from race and religion to sexuality and gender to politics.

In a matter of weeks of arriving on campus, Thomas Nagata ’15 got a taste of all of these issues, through characters in three provocative productions—The Laramie Project, Fires in the Mirror, and Angels in America. He has played a boy happening upon the body of a youth murdered because of his sexuality, an AIDS victim in denial, and a Jewish man targeted by hate speech.

“The performances that we did put us in the shoes of people who are different from us and feel oppressed in their lives, and by performing as them we became them and gained a deeper understanding for what they go through,” says Nagata, who has wanted to be an actor since he was 8 years old. “I have learned that everyone is different, and everyone has problems that they need to overcome in their lives. Also, through this FYS we have become a family, and I feel a strong connection between all the people in the class. We all support each other.”

Like Nagata, Haley Fisher ’15 said she can see a change in herself already. “I’ve found that my personal perspectives on the issues we brought to light have changed—I have learned to be flexible in my thinking,” she says. “This FYS has prepared me for my role as a citizen of the world. I entered college carrying all sorts of biases, based on little more than assumptions. I completed my first semester having accepted that I don’t know everything—that I must allow for my opinions to be informed by experiences.”

Experiencing the world

-Coming into Wheaton, Jessica Groeneweg ’15 knew she wanted to major in one of the sciences. So it was natural that she chose an FYS that included a science element. She picked “Deep Time,” taught by Professor Geoffrey Collins.

“I wanted a class that was linked to my intended major but with a slightly different focus so that I could gain a more all-around knowledge of what was being covered in other fields of science. I was immediately interested in ‘Deep Time’ because of the geology focus,” she says. “Professor Collins strategically combined the discoveries made in astronomy, geography and history, and linked them to show the greater workings of our universe, making each of us aware that nothing is really separated into disciplines, but it all works together to create a whole.”

He managed to do that in the most powerful way possible—showing rather than just telling, with a four-day trip that students were required to take together before orientation began. Collins, working in partnership with Assistant Professor of History Dana Polanichka, took 13 students camping and hiking through Vermont and New Hampshire to see real examples—quarries, fossil grounds, mountains—of the topics that would be covered during the semester.

-“I’m a geologist, and everything that geologists study is outdoors,” says Collins, “It’s one thing to sit inside and talk about the formation of mountains and layers of fossils, but it’s quite another to sit outside on top of the mountains or fossils and talk about them. Outdoor learning engages all of the senses, and I have found that there are many students who understand things better when they have learned them outside.”

Besides the educational goal of the trip, he says, “my other goal was to provide an intensive bonding experience that was linked to an intensive learning experience. Incoming first-year students can be nervous about fitting in, making friends, and succeeding in their classes all at the same time. After my FYS trip, my students had a set of friends to hang out with, a healthy set of social norms set by the upperclass students on the trip, and a taste of the exciting intellectual opportunities that college courses can offer.”

Groeneweg can attest to that. “This experience allowed us to become very close. Going into our first year of college we already had familiar faces around campus and it made the transition a lot easier. These FYS classes are a great way to introduce freshmen to the lifestyle of college while giving them a way to relate to their past schooling experience and step forward to be more independent.”

-FYS–A personal view

By Joel C. Relihan
Classics professor and associate provost