News and Events Archive

The University Experience course: Cultivating engagement in first-year students

Published by on September 23, 2013

The most valuable aspect of this class was learning about different service opportunities in the community and doing the service-learning project. It felt really good to do something for someone else.

The service project was really fun and connected me to my class.

To me, the most valuable learning exercise was when we had to do a service project.

The course is titled University Experience (UE), and these are but a few examples of positive feedback UE students gave about the service component of the course. UE is a two-credit elective course designed specifically for first-year students to welcome them to USF, and it helps them explore the overall building blocks needed for success in college and in life.


UE students show care packages that they assembled for troops overseas.

The course is organized around the themes of developing effective academic skills, learning about campus resources, exploring personal character and values, cultivating self-reflection on educational and career goals, and becoming an engaged USF student. In order to encourage USF students to become more engaged, a service-learning component was introduced into the course in 2008.

Melissa Rathburn, Assistant Director of the University Experience, explains: “Some instructors had already taken the initiative to incorporate service projects into their class as a team-building activity, but we did not make it a formal requirement of the course until five years ago. Service projects are a common aspect of first-year experience courses in general, but we wanted to go beyond the intrinsic, ‘feel good’ value of service to also include some application of theory.”


UE students pose for a photo after delivering nearly 450 care packages that they assembled for troops overseas.

In other words, UE engages students in service-learning rather than merely involve them in service. By teaching students how to cultivate engagement, they develop a respect for the role and responsibility that each individual plays as a connected and engaged citizen of diverse communities. “Engagement differs from the broader concept of involvement or motivation,” notes Rathburn, “because engagement requires students to work collaboratively with their community on a meaningful and worthwhile task, goal, and/or purpose.”

For example, last fall, UE students prepared care packages for the troops (see photos). This project was the most popular among students and was made possible through a partnership with Florida Medical Clinic’s Foundation of Caring, which covered the cost of shipping these packages overseas. More than 500 students collected donations and purchased items with their own money to prepare nearly 450 care packages. Many included cards and letters to each soldier expressing gratitude for their service and wishing them a safe return home. Through this project, students learned what families do to maintain a sense of closeness while a loved one is on the other side of the globe serving in the military. UE instructor Rene Sanchez observes:

It was amazing to see how the students pulled together and not only purchased items to make gift bags for the troops but also canvas their communities for additional resources. The students who had loved ones serving shared stories of how much care packages meant to them and I think everyone really bonded over the experience. —Rene Sanchez, UE Instructor

The primary objectives for engaged learning through UE are for students to understand issues of diversity, to appreciate and accept personal responsibility, to work effectively within group settings, and to articulate the importance of becoming engaged USF students. As the process unfolds through their service-learning in the community, students also move toward self-actualization and integration into the life of the campus community. By realizing how learning can take place in diverse social contexts while engaged in service off campus, students can gain new insights into how they might improve their own process of learning in the context of their on-campus community.

The benefits of engaged learning are likewise apparent to the instructors who teach UE. For example, the teaching cohort from last fall noted how the UE service component helped students to better articulate a meaningful sense of community, as well as gain a larger perspective by understanding how they are part of the global community.

The students had a great time making cards and coordinating their efforts for Hurricane Sandy victims. Students very much enjoy, but not without struggle to agree upon the terms of the collective service experience, pushing them to work as a group for the good of others. —Jessica McCarty, UE Instructor

Our UE class filled shoeboxes with items for Operation Christmas Child. The class truly enjoyed being able to send gifts to kids across the world who have very little. Some of our groups even took a picture of the class and included it in the box with a note stating that they love them! Our experience with the service-learning project always brings a “bigger perspective” to our class. —Rahul Agarwal, UE Instructor

UE students assemble boxes of toys, school supplies, and hygiene items for Operation Christmas Child.

UE students assemble boxes of toys, school supplies, and hygiene items for Operation Christmas Child.

UE exposes an impressive number of students to engaged learning. The majority of UE course sections (usually around 60-70) are taught during the fall semester, with a few more (10-15) in the spring. This requires about 60-65 instructors, nearly all of whom are full-time USF employees who work in Student Affairs or Academic Advising. Total enrollment for the two semesters is typically 1700-2000 students, representing approximately 40-50 percent of the first-year student population. This is a remarkable accomplishment, considering that UE is an elective course—in other words, enrollment is voluntary.

Combining this accomplishment with research that shows students who complete UE attain a higher GPA and are more likely to graduate on time,* one can easily see the formative role University Experience plays in fostering student success at USF.

* An Analysis of the University Experience Course. USF Office of Decision Support, 2011.

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