The transition from high school to college marks a tremendous change for young people, from where they’re living and who they’re living with to new academic expectations. Excitement—and nerves—are part of the journey, as Priyanka Koliwad experienced firsthand when she moved across the country to attend American University.
She’s not alone. Now a senior, Koliwad, credits AU’s innovative first-year student experience program for helping her feel supported and connected on campus.
AU began reimagining the experience of all its students in 2015. The result was a program for first-year students that is unique in higher education. All freshmen take the American University Experience, a full-year core curriculum specially designed for students transitioning into their first year of college. The first semester (AUx1) is focused on the transition to college, resources, and identity development, while the next (AUx2) examines questions of race, anti-racism, structures of power, and privilege.
First-year students also take a complex problems seminar, which teaches them how to tackle critical analysis, examine issues from diverse perspectives, and engage with the most pressing challenges of our time. With more than 140 topics, the seminar offers a wide swath of opportunities to think through philosophy, current events, pop culture, and politics. Classes range from The West’s Problem with Evil to DNA in the Digital Age. The first-year student experience builds directly into the university’s core curriculum, which integrates experiential learning across all four years.
“What I appreciate about . . . the entire first-year experience is that students aren’t expected to know everything,” says Koliwad, 22, who’s now a senior. “There are safety nets in place for students to be able to learn and grow and figure out how to become more independent.”
In addition to adjusting to college life, Koliwad was particularly concerned about finding counseling and mental health resources on campus, another common issue college students face. One cause, says Fanta Aw, AU’s vice president of undergraduate enrollment, campus life, and inclusive excellence, is social media.
“There’s a community that gets built on social media, but it’s a different kind of community,” Aw says.
Community is key at AU. Students have a number of ways to find community at AU, Aw says, through active engagement in clubs, organizations, volunteering, or the arts. Singing in the AU choir and in an a cappella group was important for Matthew Markay’s assimilation on campus. The 21-year-old junior from northern New Jersey decided to become an AUx peer facilitator after a long meeting with his facilitator during his first year.
“I’m there for advice if the students need it,” he says. “The best advice I give to [them] is just get involved. Try something new. The community is there, you just have to reach out and find it.”
Both Markay and Koliwad say their AUx experience has changed their career plans. Markay became a sociology major after his conversation with his peer facilitator, and Koliwad plans to focus on advocacy through education policy.