Transition Courses Prepare Students for a Future of Critical Thinking

Originally published November 14, 2014

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

Can the classic TV show Star Trek teach new UTEP students about time management, communication, critical thinking and other elements of academic success?

New UTEP students become familiar with campus life and learn how to navigate collegiate academia through a UNIV 1301 course. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service
New UTEP students become familiar with campus life and learn how to navigate collegiate academia through a UNIV 1301 course. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

A team of UTEP educators committed to helping first-year students and transfers feel at home here has made it so.

The University’s award-winning Entering Student Program (ESP) is partnering unique themes taught by dedicated faculty and staff members with students in their first semester at UTEP in order to familiarize them with the resources and skills they need to fulfill their potential. UNIV 1301 courses give students the confidence and tools not only to succeed at school, but also in their career and life path ahead.

The ESP received the 2003 Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Star Award and 2011 Educational Policy Institute Outstanding Retention Program recognition. It was named a 2006 Example of Excelencia finalist by Excelencia in Education, a national organization that works on behalf of Latino students succeeding in higher education.

Furthermore, educators from both within and outside of the United States have come to campus to examine the program firsthand and take its model back to their home institutions.

But its greatest achievement has been in equipping thousands of UTEP students with confidence since its official adoption into the core curriculum in 1999.

This fall, 88 sections of UNIV 1301 are being taught, including those that are part of new pilot tracks as well as many – like the Star Trek-themed section taught by UTEP Library Associate Director Nancy Hill – that are holdovers due to their effectiveness. (Hill’s course has also promoted the 1301 program far beyond campus; the New York Times highlighted it in 2010.)

New courses have been developed and piloted expressly for transfer students to help them make a successful transition to the University, become familiar with campus resources such as the library and academic technology, and develop strategies for academic success.

This pilot program also encompasses students who are starting with UTEP’s new Extended University program as well as those who are taking part in Finish @ UT. Many of these individuals are nontraditional students. These sections are seven weeks in duration and 100 percent online, marking the first time a UNIV 1301 course has been taught in this fashion.

“We’re trying to reach a population that otherwise may not have the benefit of receiving an opportunity to successfully transition to the university,” said Dorothy Ward, Ph.D., director of the ESP.

Another pilot track is for military-affiliated students and is taught by Michael Lewis, a former Army captain who brings his personal experience to students to connect with them about issues related to the military and transitioning into civilian and college life.

Overall, every UNIV 1301 course uses an academic theme to teach students about basics like Blackboard, which will serve as a tool throughout their college career.

“We will explain it until you learn how to use it,” said ESP Assistant Director Ann Gabbert, Ph.D. “That’s the beauty of University 1301. We’re having them do things that they need to do in another class, except we’re breaking it down.”

Bilingual sections have also been a part of UNIV 1301 since the program began. They help new UTEP students who are in the ESOL program develop English-language skills and University familiarity at the same time.

Every section is taught by an team consisting of an instructor, peer leader, a librarian who provides an orientation to the library and is a go-to person for the student’s research project, and an academic adviser available to answer questions like how GPA is calculated or how to read a degree plan. The instructor and peer leader meet individually with each student as least once during the semester and on a continuing one-to-one basis as needed.

These courses also offer a strong career preparation component. Ward’s section is partnered with a Rhetoric and Writing (RWS) course and the University Career Center to develop to link assignments. Students identify an internship of interest to them, write a resume to apply for it, develop a cover letter in their English RWS class, go through a mock interview with the Career Center, which also teaches them how to develop a LinkedIn profile, and finally write a research paper that includes an interview with a professional who is working within their chosen field.

In ESP, these kinds of course crossovers are referred to as Learning Communities, where a common cohort of students is put into two or more of the same classes. Groups include those focused upon service learning, honors tracks and those who were in the top 15 percent of their high school class.

The College of Science offers linked biology and chemistry courses while the College of Engineering has linked their 1301 class with an RWS class.

All of them help the students form an academic, interdisciplinary and social connection that combats anonymity and isolation while instilling an appreciation for how skills from one area of study can be applied to another with great results.

The ESP is asking faculty and staff to submit proposals for fall 2015 UNIV 1301 courses. It’s an intriguing opportunity for instructors and experts passionate about sharing what they do with students who may be intrigued by an initial theme and end up equipped with study skills and familiarity with on-campus resources that they didn’t realize they needed.

Educators within the ESP program benefit just as much as the students through faculty development workshops every fall and spring which address pedagogy, new campus resources, best practices and integration of new technology.

“We hear of faculty all the time who go back to their department and say, ‘I’m teaching my big lecture or upper-division classes in a different way now because I’ve learned all of these new techniques that I got exposed to though the 1301 workshops,’” Gabbert said.

Joanne Kropp has been teaching 1301 courses since 2001. Currently, she is leading “Imagining Nations, Imagining Regions: The Making of Cultural Diversity in Australia and on the U.S.-Mexico Border,” a Global Learning Community partnering UTEP students with peers at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia.

ESP also employs more than 90 peer leaders – full-time students who have completed their first year at UTEP as well as their RWS 1302 course and maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA. Ward points out that many of them report an interest in going to graduate school or working at a university because they’ve gotten excited about those opportunities after working as a peer leader.

Fernanda Lugo, a freshman majoring in biology, came to UTEP after high school in Juárez. Her 1301 course, “#NotJust4Geeks,” has been invaluable.

“It has helped me bond with people my own age who are going through the big struggle of transitioning to college and helped me move into the groove of working hard every day,” she said. “I expected the course to be lot like a guided tour and I resented that idea because I was already quite familiar with UTEP’s structure, but now I realize that I have learned a lot that I wouldn’t have had it not been for all the practicing that this course enforces.”

With all that both the students and faculty have to juggle, the end result is a big encouragement with ever-increasing retention rates at UTEP and more students consistently making their mark as leaders in their professions.

“I know our program and our courses are of benefit to students because many contact me in the following semesters, some even into graduate school, to tell me how well they are doing and how my class helped them through that really tough first semester,” Kropp said.