Well, we have started the year. Students are back. And it was a different start for some of us, and a remarkable beginning from my point of view.
In last week’s Connecting Points President Kriegbaum laid out the last-minute challenges posed by the Rough Fire, still uncontained as I write. It had been planned that the freshman class would go to Hume Lake for an orientation retreat, but the fire closed the camp two days before the retreat. Our student life staff had to find an alternate site and form a new plan for the dozen Collegiums (groups of 15-20 new students), their mentor professors (who advise and guide these students through their first year) and the mentor assistants (sophomores and juniors). Despite questions about whether our busses could negotiate the narrow roads, everyone got to Camp Oakhurst, got to know each other and become a freshman community.
Earlier student life, under the direction of Dean Randy Worden, along with the athletics department and a number of coaches, had worked out a compromise allowing student-athletes to attend the retreat as well as practices and pre-season contests. The academic side of the house, led by Karen Cianci, traditional undergraduate dean, and student life also balanced collegiums by gender, number of president’s scholars and athletes, and students in the same or similar majors, allowing participants to learn to know those with whom they would be taking classes and studying. I looked at the numbers—it was not an easy task.
Why not just cancel orientation? Surely an uncontrolled forest fire is an acceptable reason. Research on student achievement indicates that beginning students need to be in groups where they form relationships, both in their own class and with upper-class students and adults. Students in disciplines who work together learn better, support each other and even teach each other.
I could think of other ways departments, deans, directors, coaches, professors and staff worked together to support each other and our students. Why don’t I mention a couple? This year Gary Gramenz, dean of the School of Education, stepped in on short notice to lead the seminary planning retreat. He had his own school to prepare for the year, but had something to say that Terry Brensinger, seminary president, recognized would be good for the seminary faculty and staff. The Registrar’s Office processed transcripts and transfer credits in half the time planned for so that admissions could admit students and get them registered. Just today the Assessment Office presented a revised program review process that will simplify work for professors. Many of the points in that plan came from the professors themselves.
There are other examples. Facilities, despite a late start, pulled out all the stops to get classrooms and residences ready for students and professors. They met with the residence life staff and academic leaders to make sure their needs were met. A week before the semester began we had our annual new employee orientation day, loading up in a bus and traveling to the Merced and North Fresno regional campuses. Those staffs went way beyond what might have been expected to welcome everyone, host them for a few hours and help create a university community up and down the Central Valley. Students from the North Fresno Campus and professors from the main campus gave up part of their day on a hot Friday afternoon to form panels and talk about student experiences and faculty scholarship.
And one last example. Student government officers, under the leadership of incoming President Nick Valla, planned, had designed and paid for a full renewal of the “Forest,” that now more beautiful shaded area outside Alumni Hall. They worked with our finance and facilities departments and landscape architects to make it happen. As the freshman collegiums were having their first meetings around the new tables in the Forest, the landscapers were packing up their equipment and driving away—construction completed on time and just in time.
OK, just one more. Last week, Thursday, I think, Richard Thiessen, chair of the board of directors of the AIMS Foundation, stopped me as we crossed paths on the campus. AIMS is remodeling its headquarters in Wiebe Education Center, including some work on the adjacent parking lot. When I had arrived that morning, I walked across the lot to observe the progress. Parking is tight on campus, and I was concerned a loss of spaces would further inconvenience incoming students and professors. Richard, without my asking, assured me that the parking lot would be ready for Monday morning. He did not have to be concerned about the start of the year, but his awareness of the needs of students and faculty helped pave the way (pun intended) for a good beginning.
I have found it difficult to stop, but I will. These are some of the many examples of a university community where we considers how we serve students, professors and each other. We don’t always get it right. Each area of the community feels passionately about the importance of what it does, and sometimes that can result in a bit of tension. But the beginning of this academic year made me proud to be a part of the FPU community.