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First-Year Program An Interdisciplinary Model

By Emma Cummings-Krueger ’16    

“Watch your fingers!” yelled Sarah Barber, assistant professor of poetry and early modern literature. She winced as her class of first-year students dug their X-Acto knives into the slabs of linoleum that would eventually become printmaking stamps. Here, in the “Poetry and Printmaking” First-Year Program (FYP) class known as Clark College, students were beginning their first collegiate midterm: a broadside with both block print and poem. 

The FYP was a trailblazing program at its establishment nearly three decades ago. At the time, St. Lawrence was one of the first universities to provide a living-learning community for all first-year students.

“Our FYP grew organically from the passion and vision of educators, committed to creating the very best conditions for a transformative education,” said Jennifer Hansen, associate dean of the First-Year Program and professor of philosophy. “Many other colleges and faculty since then have adopted FY programs.”

Watch a video by Floor Fiers '19 about the FYP

FYPs at St. Lawrence include interdisciplinary components and are typically team-taught. Barber’s course is no different. She has teamed up with Melissa Schulenberg, associate professor of art and art history, to create a combination English-fine arts course, the only FYP this year to use studio space in Noble Center for class time. 

“There’s a long history of artists and poets working collaboratively,” said Schulenberg. “We thought about doing this FYP for a year or so. We’re combining both of our specialties.”

Barber and Schulenberg pace the room, offering one-on-one advice to each student, as they each whittle away at thin linoleum slabs.

“Hopefully it gets some students interested in our program,” Schulenberg added, noting that most of her first-years did not have a prior interest in studio art. “That’s okay though. Everybody benefits from taking a creative course, and any creative course is beneficial.”

One of their first-years, Abby Alford ’19, of Brasher Falls, New York, has especially valued her studio experience, after arts programming was completely cut from her high school curriculum.

“I haven’t been able to do this type of work before,” Abby said. “It’s really fun though. And, I really like how well our teachers work together, with Melissa and Sarah coming from different departments.”

Across campus at the Johnson Hall of Science, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Adam Hill was focusing the lens with his own first-year students. While Hill is a solo-instructor for Priest College, the FYP still draws from multiple academic disciplines. Instructing the inaugural “From Pixels to Picoseconds” FYP, Hill has built off of his scientific background to further diversify FYP topics this year.

“I wanted to bring more science into the FYP,” Hill said. “Combining it with photography, we are bringing these two together with a liberal arts theme.”

Hill’s FYP is comprised of both classroom instruction and “photo walks” in the field. First-year students explore the physics of light and space, along with genres of journalism and associated ethics, working with cameras and drones to photograph their new local community.

“The (two fields) have a lot in common, the technical components of conceptual versus reality, and the creation of the new,” Hill said. “Putting the class into practice can help make the college transition easier. Strong memories are made when you’re doing things, and we can convey that in the FYP with pictures.”

Intended to facilitate a transition to college life and academics, the FYP at St. Lawrence is composed of three primary pillars: academics, residence, and advising. Each incoming first-year will select an FYP course topic and be housed with his or her classmates, allowing academic discussion to flow out of the classroom and into the dorms. For further academic support, one of the FYP team-teachers acts as an interdisciplinary advisor until a student declares his or her major. 

“The FYP is structured in this three-tiered way because it models for students what a liberal education is,” Hansen explained. “It offers quality advising rooted in personal interactions between advisors and students,” she said.

The basis of similar academic curiosities often bonds first-year students with their residential neighbors. “

“They matched us for our interests, and it worked out really well,” said Cassidy Green ’19, a first-year student from Cato, New York, in the Poetry and Printmaking FYP.

As Cassidy dug a blade into her linoleum slab in the Noble Center studio, she said, “it takes a lot of time.”

Above her, Schulenberg paced the room, offering personalized feedback to each FYP student. She looked up from Cassidy’s consultation and spoke loudly over the unique classroom; “you’ve got your work cut out for you,” she said, chuckling at her own pun.

Learn more about the First-Year Program’s history and course offerings.