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Addressing the Issues of Social and Academic Integration for First Year Students

A Discussion Paper

Author: Sharon Beder

University of Wollongong

Keywords: First year experience, freshman, transition, school to university, identity, drop out rates, retention, social integration, mentoring, peer tutoring, learning skills, generic skills, curriculum, Orientation Course, Faculty of Arts.

Article style and source: Moderated. This paper was written as a discussion paper for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Wollongong.

Endnotes to this article are in a seperate document, please click here.



First year students face a number of problems in adjusting to university life. These include developing an appropriate identity and becoming socially integrated into the university as well as attaining learning and generic skills and qualities such as critical thinking and intellectual rigour. Some of these problems, especially those of social integration, are particularly pertinent to arts students. Some options that faculties might consider to address these problems are covered in this discussion paper. These include the introduction of a one week orientation course for arts students; the development of a first year introductory subject to enhance academic and social integration, improve retention rates and improve academic success; the implementation of a mentoring or peer tutoring scheme to provide guidance and advice to first year arts students; or adaptation of the existing first year arts curriculum.

The First Year Experience

The experiences of first year university students has become a major focus of concern in the US, the UK and Australia. This has been prompted by factors such as increasing student numbers, widening diversity in the backgrounds of students, high student drop out rates in first year, and the accelerating implementation of teaching technologies and flexible course delivery [1]. In 1995 there were three international conferences held on the topic. In the US, where first year students of both genders are referred to as 'freshmen', a National Research Centre for the Freshman Year Experience has been set up at the University of South Carolina [2] and The Journal of The Freshman Year Experience  was established in 1989 [3].

In 1994 the Committee for Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT) commissioned a study by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education into the first year experience in Australia, mainly because of concerns about "the rapid growth of student participation levels in universities" and the diversity of the first year student population that resulted. It sought to identify "ways in which the first year teaching and learning environment for on-campus students could be enhanced [4]." Authors Craig McInnis and Richard James with Carmel McNaught argued:

It is in the first year that students are most likely to form lasting outlooks, values and patterns of behaviour with respect to higher education and lifelong learning. Alternatively, they may conclude that university is not for them. The amount of time and energy invested by both students and universities in this formative period is likely to increase in the more competitive market environment that has emerged since the higher education reforms of the 1980s. Universities will be concerned to protect their investment in the students selected, and students will be more selective and demanding of quality in their initial undergraduate years. In this respect, the first year is becoming pivotal for the major stake holders.
The first year induction period is the first and main chance for universities to encourage students to embrace the total university experience. Universities need to review the process of transition to higher education. This includes examining strategies for improving the induction process and encouraging the integration of students into university life, and programs for raising the level of involvement and commitment of students to the academic life of the university. Universities also need to raise the status of teaching at the first year level and appropriately reward academics who have taken up the work of providing the foundations for effective learning in subsequent years of the first degree and beyond.
Their study identified a number of issues for first year students. Another international study by Caroline Baillie of Imperial College, London of first year experiences in engineering education identified similar issues [5]. Some of these issues are especially relevant to Arts students and these are outlined below.

Social Integration

The first year is important in the social integration of a person into the academic and social fabric of the university and in the adoption of the role of university student [6]. Social integration is more than a simple matter of the student having social interactions. It requires students to see themselves as a "competent member of an academic or social community" within the university, such as the Faculty of Arts, and may be aided by "rites of passage" whereby students move from membership of one community to another; from school, child-rearing or work, for example, to universityn [7].

The process of integration is an interactive process in which the student takes an active part. The CAUT study identified three categories that affect this social integration:

  1. the students' "background characteristics and experiences" which influence their expectations of, perceptions of, and behavioural responses to university;
  2. "contextual factors" such as accommodation and financial resources
  3. a range of factors for which the university is responsible. These include curriculum and timetable issues and the teaching/learning environment [8].
For students to be fully integrated and involved in university life they need to develop a sense of belonging and an appropriate identity as a university student. In a 1982 study of Australian university students Clive Williams developed an "Institutional Belongingness Scale" and argued that students who achieved low scores in his survey on this scale "can be said to feel identified with university as an institution and to have made a comfortable entry to life there [9]." Many students do not manage the transition to this new identity with between 3 and 7 per cent of students "seriously alienated from the university [10]."

The 1994 CAUT survey found that "students who had a higher academic orientation, and stronger student identity, were more satisfied with their course... happier with the teaching [11]." Students who have a stronger academic orientation, that is who are "in tune with the cultivating climate that traditionally characterises higher education" tend to perform better academically [12].

Before coming to university most students, school leavers and mature age, have begun to form their new identity because of the commitment and preparation required to decide to go to university. Nevertheless the university experience requires personal changes that many students are unprepared for [13]. There is often a gap between expectations of university and the reality of the experience [14]. This was recognised by surveyed academics who claimed that "a large body of students are proceeding to university without a clear understanding of tertiary culture [15]."

Forming a student identity is closely related to feeling connected to and integrated with the university. However, the proportion of students who manage to attain this sense of identity is likely to fall with an increase in flexible delivery and in the numbers of students who have to spend large amounts of time off campus so as to earn an income, even when studying full-time [16]. To some extent orientation week is aimed at enhancing social integration. However McInnes and James "suspect that many students, because of age, social context, cultural background or perhaps personality characteristics, are not interested [17]."

The problem of identity is a particularly vexing one in arts faculties, where a common vocational destiny and core curriculum is missing. Williams' study of 19 universities found that arts faculties tended to score badly on his Institutional Belongingness Scale compared with other faculties [18]. The same was true for his "Social Involvement Scale" and his "Alienation Scale [19]." The study also found higher rates of discontinuation in generalist faculties such as arts than in vocationally oriented courses such as medicine and engineering [20].

Although this data is old, one could expect to find similar results for arts faculties today. Students in faculties such as engineering share not only a set of subjects that they progress through together but an occupational identity that they are striving for. In arts faculties there is much more flexibility in the curriculum and more diversity in career orientations. This can be met to some extent through identification with disciplines such as sociology, history, etc. but disciplinary majors are not central to first year students, many of whom do not decide on one till second year. At the University of Wollongong, where there is an attempt to replace disciplinary identities with a more general Arts identity there is an even greater need to help students attain a sense of belonging to the Faculty.

Vocational goals do not provide Arts students with a sense of belonging either, and indeed first year Arts students often put educational goals ahead of vocational goals [21]. This was evident from the CAUT survey which found "a reasonable level of commitment among first year students [generally] towards the university as a place of learning for its own sake, and for personal growth balanced against vocational goals." This commitment could be reinforced with an understanding of the role, place and importance of Arts in society and by facilitating student identification with it.

Drop out Rates

Falling retention rates has been a major incentive for the study of first year students and ways to help them in the US and Britain. The 1994 study of first year Australian students found that "over a third had given serious consideration to deferring in the first six months of their courses [22]."

An early Australian study found that successful students, those who pass most of their first year courses, had clearer objectives than those who drop out [23]. This was confirmed by the 1994 CAUT study which found that although 74% of students said they were clear about why they were at university, those who said they were getting marks over 70% on average also tended to be those who were clearer about their purpose at university.

It has been argued that students are more likely to drop out if they are not sufficiently integrated, that is if they do not "establish sufficient ties" with the university or if their values are incompatible with those of the university [24]. An early study found that students were more likely to stay if they had formed some sort of relationship with a lecturer or involvement in campus activity [25]. Drop out rates are also associated with the extent to which students identify with their area of study. North Carolina State University has found that most students dropping out of university were coping with the academic work but "They hadn't anchored themselves to the institution" according to the dean of undergraduate studies. They therefore introduced a program for first year students that aimed to give students a sense of identity and belonging [26].

Attainment of Learning Skills

About 45% of students in the CAUT survey found that "the standard of work expected at university was much higher than they expected" and most found university to be more demanding than school. Only about a third thought that their schooling had given them "a very good preparation" for their university study. The required self-motivation and personal responsibility for learning was the most cited difference between school and university. Whilst students preferred this situation, the transition took some adjustment [27].

Almost half the students were unsure about "what was required of them, or of the direction they should take" in their university courses [28]. Their insecurity was exacerbated by initial confusion at the start of the year about timetables, expectations, how they compared with fellow students, and university standards. Almost a third of students also had difficulty adjusting to the style of teaching at university [29]."Many adjustment problems simply amount to basic misconceptions that could be remedied by better communication from universities and departments [30]."

First year mature age students at Flinders University identified the following problems:

    Feeling overwhelmed by one's own ignorance, lack of background knowledge, feelings of inadequacy, doubts about one's intellectual capacity.

    Difficulties in understanding what staff require of students - what is the purpose of written assignments, tutorials? What are staff looking for in grading me?

    Inadequate or highly critical feedback from staff...

    Inability to use the library effectively.

    Overwhelmed by the amount of reading and complexity of reading material.

    Little direction or help by staff on how to study.

    Feel unable to approach staff...

    Have no idea how to tackle a long essay - choosing, researching, planning, organising/selecting material, developing argument, writing, referencing... [31]

The sorts of study skills that students need to gain include problem solving, "time management, learning how to learn, independent learning, motivation, responsibility [32]." Most lecturers would also agree that "Student involvement in the social environment of the classroom is an important factor in the quality of the teaching-learning experience [33]." Not only do lecturers find students who do not participate a problem but students themselves can be quite anxious about that participation.

Many universities have preparatory programs and special admission schemes that endeavour to give students learning skills but they are designed for people who would not normally meet their admission requirements so as to increase access to and equity in higher education rather than for the first year student [34]. Additionally some universities provide some form of study skills assistance to students.

In general only a small proportion of students at universities avail themselves of such services. The 1994 CAUT study found that 72.6% of students never used study skills support services and about 8% were not even aware of them [35]. There has been a trend in universities towards such services being offered within courses as faculties take on responsibility for student academic success and there have been efforts for such support units "to get more closely involved in the academic teaching program during sizeable components of the first year course [36]." The ability for them to do this depends on funding and staffing resources.

Caroline Baillie, in her study of engineering students, noted that when left to themselves students often learn study skills that enable them to get by rather than "to approach their studies in a deeper manner throughout their degree without getting into bad habits or survival strategies [37]." A deep approach has been defined by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education:

A 'deep' approach involves the active search for meaning, leading to an outcome of a more complete understanding, while a 'surface' approach involves learning by rote and relies on memorising [38].
In Arts a 'surface' approach might involve writing essays that do little more than paraphrase or summarise a few readings and lack any deeper analysis.

The 1994 CAUT study of first year Australian students in various faculties also found that whilst over 80 per cent of student want to get good grades, over half (53 %) "said they only studied the minimum of what was actually required by their teachers [39]." Three quarters of academics interviewed in the same study agreed that "most students only study those things that are essential to complete the course [40]."

Most university students do not start off with such as approach: "First year university students' orientations towards learning are in a formative stage and inextricably linked to the pursuit of identity and self-efficacy developed in the peer group context [41]. Students can learn bad habits and approaches from other students, especially in a homogenous, self-reinforcing setting. On the other hand social involvement with other students doing the same classes can be helpful for students. However about a third, according to the CAUT study, do not work with or consult other students when they have problems. Those that do tend to be the middle achievers, rather than the high achievers or the low achievers. Low achievers tended not to work with other students as well as to have less social involvement with other students [42].

The authors of the CAUT study recommend:

Giving attention to the social climate of learning means... actively structuring opportunities for students to communicate with one another-and with their teachers-about their academic work outside the classroom. Small, vocationally oriented courses have generally worked hard and successfully at this: the challenge for large generalist courses is to take on board the importance of developing a life outside the classroom that supports and reinforces academic goals [43].

Attainment of Generic Skills

Generic skills, attributes and values were defined by the Higher Education Council (HEC) in 1992 as:
skills, personal attributes and values which should be acquired by all graduates regardless of their discipline or field of study. In other words, they should represent the central achievements of higher education as a process...
such qualities as critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, problem-solving, logical and independent thought, effective communication and related skills in identifying, accessing and managing information; personal attributes such as intellectual rigour, creativity and imagination; and values such as ethical practice, integrity and tolerance [44].
Whilst these are characteristics that the student would attain throughout their degree there is an increasing tendency, especially in the US, to introduce students to these skills, attributes and values in common first year courses so that they can use and develop them through the remainder of their degrees.

According to the CAUT study:

participation in higher education reaches out into communities where relatively few have been to university... for this substantial group of students, learning in social isolation denies them opportunities to develop important generic skills, such as leadership and the ability to work in teams, currently valued by employers and society [45].
The fostering of generic skills, attributes and values is a challenge that is being taken seriously at the University of Wollongong and a Working Party has been set up to define generic skills and investigate how they may be incorporated into courses.

A related area is that of creating lifelong learners. In a report to the National Board of Employment, Education and Training, QUT academics Philip Candy, Gay Crebert and Jane O'Leary stressed the key role of higher education in generating lifelong learners. In addition to information literacy, a lifelong learner, they argued, has an inquiring mind, a sense of personal agency, a repertoire of learning skills and 'helicopter vision' which they defined as incorporating "a sense of interconnectedness of fields," a broad vision as well as an awareness of how knowledge is created and its limitations [46].

Options Available to the Faculty of Arts

Universities have responded to the problems associated with first year in various ways. Often particular groups of students are targeted. Sometimes the aim is "compensatory", that is to make up for a lack of learning skills and preparation in some students, to bring them up to the level of the average school leaver. Some university faculties provide "foundational" programs that aim to give students a general background in the field of endeavour before they choose their specific specialisation and get started in higher education. For example faculties such as engineering often have a common first year before students are separated into particular branches of engineering. Some universities also offer transition programmes for students coming from school to university, sometimes during the summer, that "aim to promote integration into and affiliation with the university [47]."

The options presented below are ones that could enhance the experience of all first year students, facilitating social and academic integration and developing their academic and generic skills.

Short Orientation Course

Introductory courses or orientation courses of about a week are particularly common in the US. The aim of such courses include "building 'studenting' skills, instilling a sense of membership in the academic community and generating enthusiasm" for fields of study, as well as fostering good relationships between academics and students [48]. For example, Gallaudet University runs a compulsory week long residential orientation week, during which students are put in groups, take placement tests, select their courses for the following year, attend workshops and 'fun' events and are familiarised with the university services and regional surroundings [49].

An Introductory Subject

Introductory one session courses with credit points awarded are particularly popular in the US Two-thirds of US colleges have such courses, which seek to enhance academic and social integration, improve retention rates and improve academic success [50]. Additionally such courses may attempt to get students "to adopt new intellectual values and interests" that ensure deeper learning [51]. They endeavour to counter isolation through the development of a sense of community amongst first year students [52], "a sense of competence and social belonging [53]" and ideally through fostering "a community of learners [54]."

Introductory courses can be voluntary or compulsory, although they are generally compulsory in engineering faculties. Some introductory subjects target students 'at risk' of academic failure and others are more general. General courses have the added advantage of being able to identify students at risk who do not fall into the group normally targeted by preparatory programs. One example of a more general course is the subject University 101 at the University of South Carolina. This is a three-credit hour opning in social ihich is taken by 70% of first year students at the university. Classes are small (20-25) and taught by academics who have been to a special workshop designed for the purpose. They are aided by Peer Leaders and/or Graduate Student Leaders who also undergo special training. Its goals are as follows [55]:

  • To promote for first-year students a positive adjustment and assimilation into the University.
  • To help students learn to balance their freedom with a sense of responsibility as part of the process of enhancing self-knowledge and self-confidence.
  • To help students learn and develop a set of adaptive study, coping, critical thinking, logical problem-solving, and survival skills.
  • To help students make friends and develop a support group.
  • To improve student attitudes toward the teaching/learning process and towards faculty who are responsible for providing this process.
  • To help students learn how to understand professors' teaching and presentation styles, including those of the University 101 instructor.
  • To improve relations between faculty and students.
  • To involve students in the total life of the University.
  • To help students discover a mentor on campus.
  • To teach students about USC: its history, purposes, organization, rules and regulations, people, services, resources, and opportunities for student development.
  • To have students use the helping resources of the institution including the Library, Career Center, Health Center, etc.
  • To reduce student anxiety about written and oral communication, enhance reading comprehension, and to provide supplemental practice to the knowledge students gain in other first-year courses.
  • To provide students with information about health and wellness issues.
  • To introduce students to American higher education - its history and current structure.
  • To help students develop personal career and academic major planning goals and to master processes/means of achieving these goals.
  • To provide students additional training, practice, experience, and knowledge in the following skill areas: decision-making, goal-setting, planning, time management, and group/teamwork.
  • To increase the student's commitment to a particular major and academic department or to recognize that their most appropriate current choice is to remain undecided.
  • To enhance or establish a respect for diversity and tolerance as a member of the University family in accordance with the intent and spirit of the Carolinian Creed.
  • To promote computer literacy and activities involving the use of E-mail and the Internet.
  • To involve students in a variety of community service projects.
  • To help students discover, in general, what a great place USC is, how students fit in here, and how we can help students develop to the fullest of their potential.
Evaluations of this and other freshman courses in the US have found that they are indeed successful in raising retention rates, grades and graduate rates of those that take them, particularly for students thought to be 'at risk' [56].

The University of Kansas runs a voluntary live-in Freshman Summer Institute aimed at all undergraduate students. It is worth 5 credit points and takes four weeks over the summer break. The Institute offers students "intensive career counselling", opportunities to meet other students and get to know academics and administrators, and seminars on topics such as time management and study skills. The orientation seminar description reads:

This course will provide an introduction to the University community and the value and role of higher education in our society, strategies for successful transition to and participation in that community, exploration of the University commitment to diversity and multiculturalism, and information about University resources and procedures [57].

Mentoring and Peer Tutoring

Some universities have systems of mentors and tutors that involve academic staff or students in helping the students to be less socially isolated and to offer guidance and advice. This may involve an informal relationship where the student is free to drop in and chat with the mentor/tutor or may involve a more formal relationship where small group meetings are involved [58]. For example Georgia Southern University guarantees that students "will develop a relationship with at least one person (a faculty, staff, or upper class student mentor) to whom they can turn for information, guidance and support [59]." At the University of Colorado, Boulder, academics and administrators telephone new students a few weeks after the start of class "to see how they are adjusting [60]".

Some universities limit such mentoring to disadvantaged students. John Hopkins University, Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, runs a Mentoring Assistance Peer (MAP) Program in which senior students guide incoming students (about five each) from minority groups through their first year.

Your peer will help you learn the JHU campus and discover its many resources. You will be encouraged to keep up with your studies and to compliment your academic experience by getting involved in co-curricular activities.... Beyond that your peer will be a friend who will listen to your problems in a non-judgemental way and provide invaluable support and advice [61].
Peer tutoring, where students-usually senior students-are involved in tutoring, has the advantage that students may be more likely to understand the problems a student will be facing. It may also be necessary in situations where academics are already overworked. Such an arrangement is not cost free, however, since at the very least such tutors will need training and some sort of remuneration. Northern Illinois University hires Student Orientation Leaders who are given training in public speaking, communication and leadership skills, receive free room and board and during the summer and are paid $US 1720 [62]. North Carolina State University spent $US 200,000 in 1995 on paying counsellors for first year students and they expect this to grow to $1 million when their First Year College program is fully operational. The university believes that this expenditure will "pay off for the university" in higher retention rates [63].

Flinders University established a "peer group support system" for first year mature-age students in 1986. The idea was that the students would divide themselves into groups which would meet once a week [64]. The group leaders were volunteer senior students, postgraduate, honours and third year undergraduate, who were given no training but were paid once funding became available. They saw their role as keeping the group focused, helping them get the information they wanted, making sure everyone participated, helping with basic learning skills, critical thinking, understanding basic jargon, time management, encouraging them, sharing study strategies, and helping them get on top of their anxieties [65].

Student surveys found that students felt these peer support groups differed from tutorials in that they were non threatening and relaxed, assumed no pre-existing knowledge, and offered encouragement and reassurance that other students suffered similar anxieties and uncertainties. This helped them to feel less isolated. They were able to feel that they belonged to the group and therefore were part of the university. The groups also offered an opportunity to acquire study skills that were usually assumed in tutorials, in a co-operative, non-competitive atmosphere [66].

Peer tutoring is sometimes used in conjunction with introductory first year courses. However at least one study of a first year freshman course showed no difference in student evaluations, whether or not undergraduate teaching assistants were used [67]. This indicates that peer tutoring and first year introductory courses are alternative ways of dealing with first year problems.

Entire Curriculum Change

One or two universities have overhauled the whole first year of particular degrees to address the problems associated with first year students. Some engineering schools in the US have done this in an effort to integrate "learning activities from several connected disciplines [68]." Mechanical Engineering at UTS has also completely rethought their first year offerings to encourage a more problem-based approach [69].

This option requires a strong commitment from the whole faculty, careful thought in development, and resources and educational support to achieve [70].


That the Faculties of Arts examine the options available for enhancing the first year experience of Arts students, in particular to aid their social and academic integration and the development of the generic skills identified by the Higher Education Council.


Anon., 'Philosophical Basis for the First Year Experience', Georgia Southern University, undated.

Baillie, Caroline, 'First Year Experiences in Engineering Education - A Comparative Study'', Paper presented at Teaching Science for Technology at Tertiary Level Conference, Stockholm, 1997.

Candy, Philip, Gay Crebert and Jane O'Leary, Developing Lifelong Learners through Undergraduate Education, National Board of Employment, Education and Training, AGPS, Canberra 1994.

Christie, Nancy and Sarah Dinham, 'Institutional and External Influences on Social Integration in the Freshman Year', Journal of Higher Education  62(4), 1991, pp. 412-436.

Clanchy, John and Brigid Ballard, 'Generic Skills in the Context of Higher Education', Higher Education Research and Development  14 (2), 1995, pp. 155-166.

Cobbin, Dierdre M. and J. Paul Gostelow, 1994 National Register of Higher Education Preparatory Programs and Special Admission Schemes, AGPS, Canberra, 1993.

Cone, Al L, 'Sophomore academic retention associate with a freshman study skills and college adjustment course', Psychological Reports  69(1), 1991, pp. 312-314.

Freshman Summer Institute, University of Kansas, World Wide Web, home page, 1996.

Gallaudet University, World Wide Web, home page, 1997.

General Studies Office, Montana State University, World Wide Web, 1995.

Gose, Ben, 'A New Approach to Ease the Way for Freshmen', The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 Sept 1995, pp. A57-8.

Griffiths, Maryellen, 'Peer Group Support: A report upon a pilot peer group support system for first year university students', Report commissioned by the Flinders University Equity Program, 1986.

John Hopkins University, Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, World Wide Web home page, 1997.

Johnston, Steve and Helen McGregor,'Practice-Based Engineering Education at UTS', Paper presented at Teaching Technology to Tertiary Students Conference, Stockholm, 1997.

McInnis, Craig, and Richard James with Carmel McNaught, First Year on Campus: Diversity in the Initial Experiences of Australian Undergraduates , Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, September 1995

Ness, Ermest, Fred Rhodes and Gale Rhodes, 'University Studies: The Genesis of an Orientation Class', NASPA Journal  26(3), pp 202-206.

Northern Illinois University, ICPS 101: University Experience Sample Syllabus , World Wide Web, 1995.

Office of Orientation and Campus Information, Northern Illinois University, World Wide Web home page, 1997.

Olds, Barbara and Ronald Miller, 'Developing Meaningful Freshman Programs in Engineering Education', Workshop presented at IEEE 1993 Frontiers in Education Conference, IEEE, 1994, p. 24.

Robbins, Steven and Laura Smith, 'Enhancement programs for entering university majority and minority freshmen', Journal of Counselling and Development  71(5), pp. 510-514.

Seton Hall University, World Wide Web, home page, 1997.

University of South Carolina, 'The Freshman Year Experience: University 101', World Wide Web, 1996.

Washington State University, WSU's Freshman Seminar Model, World Wide Web, 1997.

Williams, Clive, with Tom Pepe, The Early Experiences of Students on Australian University Campuses, University of Sydney, 1982. 

About the author

Dr Sharon Beder
Senior Lecturer
Science and Technology Studies
University of Woolongong
Northfields Avenue
Woolongong, NSW 2522
email: sharon_beder@uwo.edu.au

Copyright © Sharon Beder, 1997. For uses other than personal research or study, as permitted under the Copyright Laws of your country, permission must be negotiated with the author. Any further publication permitted by the author must include full acknowledgement of first publication in ultiBASE (http://ultibase.rmit.edu.au). Please contact the Editor of ultiBASE for assistance with acknowledgement ofsubsequent publication.
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