University Studies turns 10

During its ten years at Portland State, University Studies has been met with everything from praise to scrutiny to harsh criticism.

Proponents of the program claim that it represents the future in general higher education, with several other colleges having studied the program in order to improve their own general education programs.

Critics have attacked everything from the size of the program’s requirements to the quality of teaching, and some students have even sought to have the program abolished.

“We know there are complaints about it,” Judy Patton, director of University Studies at PSU said. “We’re not perfect yet, but I think the attempt is worth it.”

Despite the critics, Patton says she thinks UNST’s unique, multi-discipline approach encourages both academic and civic engagement has a lot to offer students.

“An undergraduate education isn’t just about completing a major, it’s about becoming an educated, involved citizen,” she said. “The sad thing about education today is that it has made too many students think learning is boring. We’re trying to find ways to get students excited.”

What’s working

For many students at PSU, UNST is a great success. Some even report that it is one of the best educational experiences they have ever had. Some of the biggest believers in UNST’s potential for success are the students who have themselves become mentors in the program.

“I was really thankful to have found a school with such a forward thinking attitude about general education,” said Sonja Young, a graduate student and Sophomore Inquiry (SINQ) mentor. “To this day I still consider the Frankenstein (Transfer Transition class) one of the best of my college experiences.”

Young also said that she feels the media has unfairly focused on the negative aspects of the program and ignored the things that work.

“To not give voice to the positive aspects of the program is extremely denigrating to those of us who have had a positive experience,” she said.

Elizabeth Bone Daykin, who has mentored both Freshman Inquiry (FRINQ) and SINQ courses, said that she was inspired to become a mentor because of the friendships she developed with her own mentors and professors when she was a university studies student.

“I’d much rather do University Studies, there’s no question” Bone Daykin said when given the choice between UNST and traditional general education. “It’s a great opportunity to do upper division work in a subject that is not your major.”

Mentors are not the only students that report having positive experiences with UNST, however.

“Freshman Inquiry has helped me to adjust to college life, and I feel more equipped to handle the pressures that the jump from high school to college entails,” Hisham Qaisi, an 18-year-old freshman said.

What’s not working

Despite many students enjoying the UNST experience, others still have complaints and concerns about the way the program works. In addition to student complaints, some of the program’s goals are not being reached as well as the department would like to see.

One of the most common student complaints about UNST is that students do not see how the courses fit in with their overall educational goals, especially within Freshman Inquiry classes.

Sophomore Meaghan Stetzik said that many students left her FRINQ class because they felt it wasn’t relevant to what they wanted to study.

“I heard a lot of complaints like, ‘I don’t know why I need to learn this,'” she said.

“Freshman Inquiry seems pointless to many freshman who take it simply because it is a five credit class, with no real name,” Qaisi said. “When students take ‘biology’ they know what they are going to study, but when a student has to register for “The Columbia Basin,” he would be skeptical.”

Bone Daykin suggests that many students do not appreciate UNST because the goals of the program are not adequately explained to them.

“Because we don’t explain to students why we do this, there is a tendency to say, ‘This is stupid,'” she said.

Candyce Reynolds, director of the mentor program for UNST, speculated that the issue may not be with University Studies specifically, but instead be an age-old problem with getting students to see the value of general education.

“Before this, people were complaining about the math class or literature class they had to take,” she said. “It is easy for students to say, ‘I don’t need this,’ but the reality is they are getting skills that they do need.”

Also of concern is UNST’s ability to educate students in general education skills like math and writing despite its non-traditional format. In a survey of Senior Capstone students last year in which they were asked to rate their pre-Capstone experience, 28 percent described their writing ability – one of the goals of UNST – as “weak” or “very weak.”

Patton said that the score “is of concern,” and noted that UNST has hired a professor, who as part of their responsibility, will lead an effort to improve writing. However, the lack of writing skills is not entirely due to UNST, but is instead an issue that the university as a whole is struggling with.

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“The University Writing Committee and the Faculty Senate has agreed that PSU should do more to determine the level of proficiency of entering student’s writing and to increase writing instruction, particularly at the upper division level within the majors,” Patton said. “However, budgetary limitations have made it impossible to implement the plans.”

Working for change

According to Patton, the University Studies department devotes much of its time and resources to studying ways to improve the program. As any student who has gone through a UNST course knows, participants are routinely surveyed about their UNST experience at least twice per term. All of the survey information is compiled into extensive reports and used to identify weak spots in the program.

The most valuable tool in improving the program, however, is direct feedback from students and mentors. Patton said that she encourages students who have complaints to discuss them with someone from the department.

“We’re a learning community, we’re all in this together,” Patton said. “We really look to what students are telling us about what the weaknesses are.”

In November, the department started two new student groups in an attempt to get students more involved in UNST and encourage more student feedback.

A Student Advisory Council (SAC) was formed to provide better contact between students and the department and serve as an advocate for student needs. The council, which currently consists of about 12 students, meets once per month to discuss issues with the UNST program, and will hold meetings open to students and faculty once per term.

“We wanted something to make the student voice heard,” Patton said of the SAC.

“It fits with the overall goal of University Studies, that we’re involved in the community,” council member Dave Cowsert said. “Everybody (on the council) feels positive about the program but wants to make it better than what it is.”

While the council is still in its infancy, it has already begun to identify issues such as inaccurate course descriptions and difficulties for transfer students and begun to discuss possible solutions, according to Cowsert.

“I would like to see the council be a big part of making the department fulfill the goals they set,” he said.

In addition to the SAC, an academic journal has also been created for students to publish work they have done in UNST courses. Called “Inq,” the journal has already established its editorial board and is currently soliciting submissions from students for its first issue.

The first issue of the journal, addressing the theme of “community, culture, and the urban environment,” will be published in conjunction with UNST’s first-ever academic conference, to be held on May 27, which will also feature projects and presentations by UNST students.

UNST mentors also want students to know that their mentors provide a valuable link to UNST program.

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“If students are having difficulty, I let the professor know,” Bone Daykin said. “I worry that students are sometimes unhappy but don’t do anything about it.”

“There are people there to help you,” she added.

Both Patton and Reynolds agree that a key element to UNST’s success is the relationships formed between students and mentors.

“Mentors are a really important role in the success of University Studies,” Reynolds said. “They help students feel more connected with why they are here.”