First year experience provides consistent curriculum in residence halls

Family with moving van

Ron Ruzicka, left, helps his son, Steven, load a bed frame onto a hand truck as Steven moves into Wilson Hall on the OSU campus. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Until Sept. 24, Josh Bowen and Steven Ruzicka had never met in person. Josh lives in Yucaipa, Calif., and Steven is from Issaquah, Wash. But a mere 1,200 miles is nothing in the age of social media, so the new roommates had plenty of time for Facebook exchanges before they stood face to face in their door room in Wilson Hall.

Although both Josh and Steven say they would probably have chosen to live on campus anyway, this is the first year that true freshmen, that is, those just arriving from high school, are required to live on campus at Oregon State University.

Josh’s mom, Beverley Bowen, is pleased that her son will be in a residence hall during his first year.

“I worry about him less,” she said. Instead of focusing on the trials and tribulations of apartment life, Josh will be able to focus more on his studies, and given his science-heavy first term, the computer and electrical engineering student will need all the help he can get.

Like Bowen’s parents, Lila and Ron Ruzicka didn’t live on campus during their freshmen year either, but are pleased that son Steven is doing so. Ron even custom-built loft beds for both the freshmen, freeing up a lot of needed space in their residence hall room for storage and study space.

Families in a dorm room

Beverely Bowen looks on as her son Josh and his roommate Steven move into their new home in Wilson Hall. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

But while deciding which roommate got which bunk bed was probably the biggest decision of their day, what Josh and Steven probably weren’t aware of was the intense planning going on behind the scenes to make their life in Wilson Hall as fulfilling, and supportive, as possible.

Creating a cohesive first-year experience has been a goal of OSU for several years, and a task force led by OSU’s Susie Brubaker-Cole and Mark Hoffman made it a key element of their recommendations.

“If you look at top universities in the country in terms of academic success and student retention, almost all of them require students to live on campus their first year,” Brubaker-Cole said. “The learning and community-building that occur in campus residences are focal points of the first-year experience.”

On-campus living is an important element of the overall plan, because studies show that first-year students who live on campus typically earn higher grades, and graduate earlier, than those who choose to live off campus.

Students living in residence halls have easy access to tutors, study groups, helpful resident assistants and directors, and a sense of community that is difficult to replicate in off-campus living.

Associate Director of Residential Education for University Housing and Dining Ann Marie Klotz has spent her first year at OSU assessing what students were learning in their on-campus communities, and how that can be improved.

Typically, satisfaction levels from freshmen surveyed were higher for those in living-learning communities, such as the Austin Entrepreneurship Program at Weatherford Hall. The type of focused curriculum those residence halls provided became a model for the residential education program, which is key to the “First Year Experience.” Now each residence hall will be providing the same curriculum at the same time, but residence hall staffs will have flexibility in how they choose to present the information to their students. Resources in the form of talking points, bulletin board items, newsletter articles and more are available to staff.

Residence hall room

First year students in residence halls at OSU will all be receiving similar curriculum during their year living on campus. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Developing that curriculum, and deciding what to focus on, was the challenge, Klotz said. The question that the First Year Experience team asked was “What are the areas that students need to know the most about?” They settled on the themes of safe and healthy communities, academic success and faculty engagement, traditions and affinity and living in community.

Klotz is most excited about the traditions portion of the curriculum, because she believes OSU could expand upon traditions like the freshmen convocation walk, and really solidify what it means to be an OSU Beaver.

When she first arrived on campus and was working out at Dixon, Klotz noticed that everyone around her was wearing bright orange. She asked the person next to her why they were wearing orange and heard “We’re all just so proud to go here.” That’s the kind of response she wants from all OSU freshmen.

“We need to create that feeling from the second they walk onto campus,” she said.

Retention is a big part of the motivation for the First Year Experience. For the first time, each residence hall will measure the retention of students who successfully make it to their sophomore year. Those halls that struggle to meet their goals will be given extra help. Retention overall at OSU between the first and second year is in the low 80s, but Klotz thinks with work, they can easily break the 90 percent mark.

Because of the focused programming and resources RAs will have at their fingertips, and the new training they’ve received, Klotz anticipates that the bond between RAs and freshmen will be even stronger, which has also been shown to increase retention rates.

Drew Satter is the resident director for Weatherford Residential College. He worked with colleagues across campus as they crafted a shared residence hall curriculum that helps residence hall advisors and staff shape the freshmen experience outside of the classroom.

In Weatherford, for example, a large focus will be on encouraging students to use social media to interact with each other and become more engaged with the campus in general. That interaction starts when they move in and will continue throughout the year.

“We hope that residents will gain a number of life skills, supplementation to their classes, and overall improved functionality and understanding about their surrounding environment,” Satter said. “I hope that students will grow, succeed, and be engaged students here at Oregon State University.”

~ Theresa Hogue

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