Reimagining What It Means to Be a Student

By Kelli An '04, September 2, 2020
Ithaca Summer Seminars ease the transition to college for incoming first-year students.

Half of Ithaca College’s incoming class, about 600 first-year students, got a head start on their IC experience this summer.

An Office of Extended Studies pilot program offered incoming students the opportunity to earn up to three credits through online summer seminars. The first one-credit class was free, with each additional class just $150 — a substantial savings off the typical price of $1,088 per credit.

“On average, students opted to take two classes,” says Andrew Utterson, associate professor of screen studies and director of the Ithaca Seminar Program. “So it turned out to be an extremely popular program.”

The Ithaca Summer Seminars were the brainchild of Jennifer Wofford, director of extended studies, who came up with the idea to engage students prior to the start of the semester. This summer’s seminars served as an introduction to the technology IC uses for online classes, including its learning management system, Sakai. And the program got incoming students thinking about how to achieve the college experience they want despite the pandemic, says English professor Elizabeth Bleicher, who taught the other foundation seminar.

“Our goals were really to help students get excited about coming to college,” she says, “to start preparing them mentally and emotionally and intellectually for the transition.”

“I was eager to get started at Ithaca, and I had been looking forward to interacting with students and faculty for months.”

Xan Hopkins ’24

With that in mind, faculty designed the pass/fail classes to foster student connections. Class sessions were typically capped at 20 people, with video chat discussions and a focus on small-group assignments and interactions, says Bleicher. Recent IC grads pitched in as “near-peer leaders” to provide guidance.

Students opting to earn more than one credit could explore more than two dozen “deep dive” courses from departments across the college, covering topics like video game design for social impact, managing personal finances, and storytelling patterns in fairy tales.

For their first class, students chose between two foundation courses: College: Why Are We Here? and Community: A Shared Experience.

Bleicher’s “College” course — which students quickly renamed “Learning How to Learn” — worked on skills, mindsets and traits that “help them go from being passive students to active learners,” she says.

“We talked about holding yourself accountable, setting SMART goals and finding accountability partners, if that's important to you. We talked about procrastination and the psychology behind it,” she says. “A real goal was to just change their approach to their own learning.”

“The content really got me thinking about myself. It made me realize things about how I learn, the best ways for me to learn, and my flaws with learning, to work on.” 

Colin Nacion '24

And that extends to when the community is spread across the globe.

“In any one given section, students were from across the college in terms of schools, departments, and majors, but geographically diverse, too,” Utterson says. “Remote learning allowed us to bring students together simultaneously that would never have been able to do so in any other summer ... all of us brought together by way of Zoom to be able to find connections and some universal humanity of the transition to college."

In post-seminar surveys, more than 9 in 10 participants “agree or strongly agree that they feel more prepared for college now,” Bleicher says. “They also are reporting that, anecdotally, online education is much better in college than it was in high school. So that's making them feel calmer and more assured.”

student with a book

Nandini Agarwal '24 participated in the seminars while at home in India.

Xan Hopkins ’24, a theatre studies major, went all-in on the summer seminars, signing up for Utterson's Community foundation class, as well as Movies and Philosophical Conversation and Once Upon This Time: Reflecting on Fairy Tales.

“I thought $300 for three 1-credit courses was too good of an opportunity to pass up," she says, adding, "It was difficult to choose just three courses because there were so many that looked interesting. I was also eager to get started at Ithaca, and I had been looking forward to interacting with students and faculty for months.”

The courses proved "invaluable" to getting started with her college career. "Not only did I get to meet and form connections with faculty members and classmates, I was also able to familiarize myself with Sakai and other online resources that I’ll need for the coming remote semester,” she says.

One of the memorable assignments in "Community," she recalls, was a small-group assignment where the students used Zoom to talk about their high school communities and experiences. "It gave us all some insights into what we had in common and what perspectives were unique to us," Hopkins says.

Patrick Bierach '24 says he felt like taking courses over the summer would help remind him of what it was like to be a student again.

"Having the end of senior year of high school be virtual wasn’t as productive as it could have been."

Bierach is starting in the Exploratory Program, for students who come to IC to discover their majors, but has narrowed his potential majors to computer science, environmental science, and biology, or a mixture of the three. So for summer seminars, he picked Utterson's Community class, as well as Introduction to the Human Body.

Colin Nacion ’24, who is also in the Exploratory Program, took two summer seminar classes: Bleicher’s “College: Why Are We Here?” and “Songwriter-Singers,” a deep dive on writing and singing your own music. 

His hope: get to know people. “I was getting a little nervous, being one of the only students coming from Illinois,” he says. 

Now he has a network of friends and contacts from the seminars, including a handful of students who took the same two courses. But thanks to Bleicher’s course, he also came away with a better idea about what major he’d like to pursue — English — and an understanding of his learning style. 

 “That class was amazing,” Nacion says. “The content really got me thinking about myself. It made me realize things about how I learn, the best ways for me to learn, and my flaws with learning, to work on.” 

“I know that I’m going to have to learn to adapt” while learning remotely this semester, he says, “and it taught me how to be versatile and work with what I have.”

He’s already volunteered to be a peer leader for next year’s summer seminars. 

Students can expect that faculty will be reaching out to help them keep up with their strong start. “They don't know this, but in December, I'm going to send them a note,” Bleicher says. “Let's take a look back at what you said you wanted to do and see, what do you need to recommit to? What have you made progress on? Let's take stock.”