Photos by Kimberly Williams
August 13 marked the day when 130 freshmen embarked on Sewanee’s unique first-year experience: Finding Your Place, a half-semester class that invites freshmen to consider an interdisciplinary perspective on how they fit into the Domain. Not only did the class reach students academically, but the Office of Residential Life added a dimension of living in intellectual unity with other Sewanee students to the program. Directed by Dr. Deborah McGrath and led by ten professors, Finding Your Place provides multiple lenses through which students can view their newly established Sewanee experience. “Finding Your Place is unique to the Domain and represents an extremely unique experience that I don’t think could be done as well anywhere else,” Jimmy Szewczyk (C’15) Head Proctor of First-Year Programs, said.
FYP approaches the learning spectrum with multiple techniques. An important component of FYP is the plenary lecture, by definition a “full” or “absolute” discussion on selected readings. During each plenary session this year, one faculty moderator and three professors presented in Convocation Hall. Discussions this year ranged from the Plateau’s geological foundations to the University’s founders, each lecture providing perspectives from different disciplines. In the end, students asked questions and discussed in the large group the concepts they found most profound, difficult to understand, or interesting to debate.
For non-plenary sessions, groups of students no larger than 20 went on field trips with their professors to explore local landscapes, including Sherwood, Winchester, and Cowan. Some field trips consisted of challenging hikes while others explored architecture of buildings around Sewanee. From one angle, students got to know their professors via readings and journals; from another, they got to share meals and walks with their advisors, discussing family, hometowns, and non-academic interests.
Last year, 105 students signed up to participate in FYP. This year, it expanded from seven sections to ten sections, and the schedule and night activities were modified slightly to accommodate the needs voiced by students of the pilot year. According to survey results collected from the 2013 group, more time was needed for rest and natural interaction with other students.
“We built in more free time. This stood out to me among the differences because I think it gave the freshmen more time to create organic friendships within their residence halls,” Szewczyk said. Harry Groce (C’18), Dr. Chris McDonough’s student, commented that at times he was “overwhelmed” by the schedule, but his free time was spent getting to know those living in his dorm and getting his Classics homework done.
Running from August 13 until October 1, the program offers to the first year student a transitional experience between moving in and creating close bonds with fellow residents to getting to know the greater Sewanee community over the year. Dr. McGrath’s Biology class visited Beersheba Springs in Grundy County to learn about a neighboring town and the organisms present in the forests not only on the Domain, but around it.“I feel like I grasped a better understanding on what Sewanee means within the context of the surrounding towns,” Groce said.
From a holistic view, FYP adds to the Sewanee experience through intense lectures, deep intellectual exploration, self-learning, and residential awareness. The goals laid out by the ten professors and Residential Life leaders who planned the program promoted an understanding of college-level academic skills, lifelong skills of balance and place, and respect for the community. Groce said, “I wouldn’t take that experience back for the world.”