WORCESTER, Mass. Picture this: For 18 years, you’ve lived under someone else’s roof, by someone else’s rules, and your day is highly structured. Then, you move to college. You’re on your own. For many students, the transition can be jarring.
One local Catholic university is trying out a program aimed at smoothing the path from high school to college. WBUR’s Monica Brady-Myerov explains the approach and impact on campus social life and academic outcomes.
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MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Freshmen come to college under a lot of pressure to succeed academically. Nancy Andrews, Classics professor at The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, says because of that sense of competition, students are less likely to take risks in class.
NANCY ANDREWS: I think freshman year in general is perhaps harder than it used to be. And so, they tend to be very uptight about being comfortable in a classroom about giving answers in a classroom they think may not be correct.
BRADY-MYEROV: Andrews directs a new Holy Cross program that connects students’ classroom experiences with the rest of their on-campus lives. It does that by assigning students with similar interests to the same dormitories. Those students also take part in year-long seminars, retreats and community service projects.
ANDREWS: So, we really want to open up those communication skills and create that rapport and create a kind of momentum for the students that will carry over into other classes. That will create a desire for more independent and creative work.
BRADY-MYEROV: One freshman, Betty Gochette, says the structure of a year-long seminar with the same students and professor has helped ease her first year.
BETTY GOCHETTE: I kind of like the fact that we’re going to be in the same group for a whole year because it reminds me of high school a little bit, like it’s helping the transitional period with the same professor for the same year, as opposed to changing when the semester changes.
BRADY-MYEROV: The program is called “Montserrat,” after a Spanish mountain where the founder of the Jesuit Order devoted his life to God. Montserrat has a strong ethical and religious component, says Holy Cross President Father Michael McFarland.
REV. MICHAEL MCFARLAND: I think what it does it allows a greater integration of students’ intellectual and personal and community lives. A lot of studies show that 90 percent of college students are looking at these questions. They want to find a deeper purpose in their lives they want to find meaning and they want to have a way of thinking through their obligations.
BRADY-MYEROV: The vast majority of Holy Cross’ students are Catholic, and Father McFarland says that allows the Jesuit school to address a wide range of questions.
REV. MCFARLAND: The fact that we’re willing to deal with values and questions of deeper meaning is essential to the conception and execution of this program. So, people would have to have the intellectual openness and flexibility to look at questions that are often not taken on at secular universities.
BRADY-MYEROV: All 719 freshmen are required to choose one of five clusters. The cluster called The Divine explores faith seeking and understanding. The Self cluster looks at self-awareness. The Natural World cluster examines at how people affect the environment. It does this through seminars such as this one which looks at how mind and body interact to influence health.
[Sound of class] “What’s your heart rate? (laughter)”
BRADY-MYEROV: On this day, two students are wearing heart monitors to measure their stress levels, which go through the roof when the professor asks them to sing. The seminar is led by Psychology professor John Axelson, who is getting them to think ahead about avoiding stress.
JOHN AXELSON: People like myself are going to be putting big demands on you. I hope that in this class and this year you’ll learn to respond to those demand in a way that is effective and much less destructive.
BRADY-MYEROV: Professor Axelson says he’s excited about integrating what’s going on in the classroom with dorm and social life.
AXELSON: I think the key is you have the same group of students for a whole year, and that’s what mentoring is about.
BRADY-MYEROV: While the school says it made the program clear to incoming freshmen, the ones I spoke with didn’t know much about it before arriving. Rachel Salemme, who is part of the Natural World cluster, says the seminar is pushing her intellectually.
RACHEL SALEMME: I really like the discussion aspect of it. We get to talk. It forces you to think.
BRADY-MYEROV: Holy Cross has offered clusters for more than a decade. What’s new is that this structured program is now required for all freshmen. The College’s research, done before the program was expanded, showed those students who chose clusters had fewer disciplinary problems, including drinking. They were more likely to be campus leaders. They had higher grades. They went on to graduate programs and scholarships at a higher rate when compared with the rest of the class.
Holy Cross Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Tim Austin, says this compelling evidence convinced the school to expand the program to the whole freshmen class.
TIM AUSTIN: We are very interested in seeing whether our students will become more ambitious academically, whether they will pursue international scholarship opportunities, whether there will be a change in their willingness to pursue post graduate study.
BRADY-MYEROV: So far, administrators say they are pleased with the response. Freshmen are speaking out more in class and signing up for a religious retreat at a higher rate. Holy Cross officials hope as the reputation of Montserrat grows, it will attract more serious students seeking higher academic achievement.
For WBUR, I’m Monica Brady-Myerov.