Appalachian State

This regional university throws the book at freshmen to get them on the same page

GROUP GROPE: A freshman-seminar student completes a "trust fall," designed to forge bonds and hone problem-solving skills

As he helped his son Rich move into his dorm at Appalachian State University last month, Bruce Withrow, 52, remembered how he and his classmates were greeted at another North Carolina university 33 years earlier, when baby boomers were swelling enrollments. "We've got too many of you here," an administrator told them. "And we're going to get rid of a bunch of you." That's a far cry from the message that Rich and other incoming students get at Appalachian. "All of you have the ability to do well here," Joe Watts, an associate vice chancellor, assured a group of freshmen. "You'll have problems — but we'll help you out."

As it has grown from a rural grammar school in 1899 into a state university — it is what educators call a masters' institution — with 12,800 students, the school has worked hard to retain its cozy sense of community so that every student feels nurtured and challenged.

Consider Sarah Jusiewicz, now a sophomore. After becoming hooked as a teenager on such crime dramas as Dragnet and Diagnosis Murder, Jusiewicz knew she wanted to work in an FBI lab specializing in fingerprint analysis, ballistics and fiber comparison. So the New Jersey teenager applied to Appalachian, which offers a chemistry major with a forensic science concentration. The university's picturesque setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains didn't hurt its appeal.

Jusiewicz was accepted but still worried about her preparation. Her high school didn't offer a chemistry lab. But her determination to pursue a career in science was bolstered by the book assigned to her Appalachian freshman class to read before the students showed up last year. Rodney Barker's And the Waters Turned to Blood traces the investigation by botanist JoAnn Burkholder of a mysterious microorganism linked to massive fish kills in North Carolina waters in the 1990s. Jusiewicz felt further inspired when Burkholder delivered the convocation address. "To see a woman who's got her doctorate and become an expert in her field made me feel that I could do it too," Jusiewicz recalls.

Her adviser steered Jusiewicz into a forensic science "learning community" of 11 students, all enrolled together in a freshman seminar and in chemistry and criminal-justice classes that included students from outside the group. Their seminar was far cozier than either the chemistry class of 50 students or the criminal-justice course (more than 30). It fostered new friendships, honed their study skills and brought in working professionals to familiarize them with the forensics field. It also served as a ready-made study group for the other two courses.

Her chemistry professor, Dale Wheeler, invited the forensics group to dinner, which made Jusiewicz feel more comfortable about asking him questions after class. She could also attend sessions led three times a week by a senior chemistry major whose assignment was to reinforce the lectures. When she had trouble with a math course, she signed up for free one-on-one tutoring. The results: a B in chemistry and an A in math.

Students enrolled in small freshman seminars and learning communities return to Appalachian for their sophomore year at a higher rate than do their peers who don't partake in the program (90% vs. 84% for 1999's freshmen). So the school is expanding the program, which is offered on a first-come, first-served basis. More than 50% of the incoming class will take part in freshman seminars this year, up from about 40% last year. And students in each freshman seminar are enrolled together in at least one other course to form a learning community.

When freshmen arrive for one of the two-day orientation sessions held over the summer, their parents are invited to come along. About half do. While the kids take placement tests and register for courses, their parents attend lectures on the development of young adults, confer with parents of current students and get tips on how to gauge their kids' academic progress. ("Ask your students their professors' names two or three weeks into the semester" is one piece of advice from freshman seminars director Rennie Brantz. "If they don't know, they're not engaged.")

During orientation, kids are required to bunk on campus. That's optional for parents, but about half seize the opportunity to sample dorm life. Sarah's mom, Merry Jusiewicz, 49, arrived with concerns about sending her daughter so far from home but left reassured: "I got a real feeling of a genuinely caring faculty."

Some faculty members resent the focus on freshmen, accusing the administration of "hand holding." Joni Petschauer, director of freshman learning communities, pleads guilty: "Yes! That's exactly what we're doing. We're extending our hands to them for the first semester. I embrace that."

Last month, instead of asking their new classmates, "Where are you from?" many freshmen arriving at Appalachian asked one another, "Have you read the book?" The following day, the 2,321 freshmen broke into small groups for discussions led by faculty and administrators of A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines' acclaimed 1993 novel about a black man condemned to die for a crime he did not commit and the black teacher who visits him in jail. Author Gaines is scheduled to deliver the convocation address this week. And later this month the theater department will stage a play adapted from the book.

Beyond those planned events, it is the spontaneous eruptions of interest that are most gratifying to the freshman advocates at Appalachian. Jeffrey Grubbs, 18, a freshman from Charlotte, says that he rarely reads for pleasure but tore through this summer's assignment, savoring the rich evocation of 1940s Louisiana. "It's just drenched in setting," he marvels. One evening after the formal book discussion, he persuaded some visiting friends to give the book a try. As the school year begins, Appalachian has its freshmen on the same page — and spreading the word.

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