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Sophomore La Verne Experience focuses on interpersonal ties

Robert Penalber
Managing Editor

University administrators will launch phase two of the La Verne Experience – the sophomore experience – in the fall of 2014. The Sophomore La Verne Experience, or SOLVE, will essentially be a two-unit course centered around student involvement.

An optional pilot program of SOLVE will launch during spring semester 2014. Administrators are currently working to fill out the details of the program.

The program will likely have three components: campus activities and events, exploration of the University’s core values and a written personal reflection, said Jonathan Reed, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“It’s a course that’ll introduce students to all of the things available on campus,” said Peggy Redman, professor of education and director of the La Verne Experience. “They’ll go, attend those events and return to reflect in a classroom setting to produce something written for that. That keeps who we are as an institution.”

“I think the first misconception is that many people think that it’s just going to be FLEX again,” associate professor of political science Gitty Amini said.

FLEX, or the Freshman  La Verne Experience, which started fall semester 2013, is a linked classes program for which the same group of freshmen takes two or three classes together.

“They think it’s just going to be FLEX again with the same courses, so they’re like, ‘Ugh, we’ve already done this.’ But it’s not round two of FLEX, it’s completely different.”

FLEX, the freshman La Verne experience, is different from the proposed sophomore experience, which will only be one class linked to out-of-class activities.

“It’s kind of a progression,” Redman said. “FLEX deals with the academic role, linking the two courses with writing class and with community engagement. Now, coming into the sophomore experience, it’s about becoming exposed to all the things the campus has to offer. Those reflective pieces will be the beginning pieces to the e-portfolio.”

The e-portfolio is a component that will be introduced as part of the entire four-year La Verne experience, where students will reflect. Some of the tabs suggested for the e-portfolio include having a transcript section, career development, a compilation of student work and a letter written during the freshman year that would only be available when the student graduates.

The SOLVE program will collaborate and have leadership with student affairs to connect the curricular with the co-curricular, Redman said.

“We’re sort of trying to figure out what we emphasize during the sophomore year,” Amini said. “‘What do they need in their sophomore year?’– that’s the question we posed to ourselves. So we tried to come up with something that would service the sophomores, and that is to really get them engaged.”

While administrators have been working on the second phase during the school year, the plan for the La Verne Experience was introduced in 2011 when President Devorah Lieberman was inaugurated.

“I came in and said what I’d like to do is create the La Verne Experiences so every student is participating in a program that’s different at the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior levels but has connections to disciplines and faculty outside of classes,” Lieberman said.

After interviewing for the position of president, Lieber­man noticed that if students were focused on completing their majors, they were not able to see the connection between disciplines and building a connection with faculty members, she said.

The College of Arts and Sciences was looking at ways to make more intensive learning experiences, but did not package it as the La Verne Experience until Lieberman.

“We wanted to look at doing more,” Reed said. “The La Verne Experience is the student-faculty relationship, so we have to make sure we are creating opportunities for students to establish these relationships.”

Faculty is responsible for creating the curriculum of the sophomore program and assessing it.

Two years ago, before Lieberman came, the University had around 1,500 students on main campus, but now that the figure has nearly doubled to 2,600 students, it’s gotten harder to connect with other students on campus, Reed said.

Four years ago part-time faculty taught 75 percent of all classes to freshmen, Reed said. Because of this, a program was needed to build relationships.

In developing the sophomore experience, administrators looked toward other courses for inspiration.

“I think the one we put it over is the Honors Colloquium, and what they do is really an effort to bring students into an understanding of all of the links in life between academics and their co-curricular activities,” Redman said.

Another came from a “Skills for Success” course from the business school. The models of each course can benefit all students, Amini said.

Still, there have been several issues with developing the sophomore year experience.

One has been re-articulating the baccalaureate goals, which are the basic skills and values the University wants all students to graduate with. The sophomore year experience has to be tailored to meeting those goals, Reed said.

Another issue has been deciding when the program should be implemented.

Though the sophomore experience will not be a requirement for the current freshman class, those students will have the option next year, as sophomores, to participate in the pilot program.

The hope is to have, at most, two sections in the spring of 2014.

Yet administrators are still working on having the classes satisfy a general education requirement in the catalog.

“We all agree that, conceptually, it’s a really exciting opportunity,” Amini said. “But what always happens is that you have a brilliant idea and then you try to actualize it and you get the details wrong, and then it flops. We just want to make sure it doesn’t flop, we want to make sure we get those details right before we go with the full rollout.”

Perhaps the biggest issue has been the skepticism students and faculty have shared over how little is known about the sophomore year experience.

“I’m not entirely clear what the purpose of it is,” Professor of Sociology Hector Delgado said. “Is that really just the purpose, to just encourage students to get out? I see it sort of as a student affairs thing, I don’t see it as much in an academic realm, as I understand it.”

The University is increasingly concerned with students meeting one another, with students thriving socially, whereas the emphasis should be on academics, Delgado said.

“Honestly, out of all the people I met in the FLEX community, there is only one I keep in contact with and he ended up being in a different FLEX group,” freshman chemistry major Alexander Malinick said.

Students left in the dark have created scenarios, often asking whether the new program would decrease their chances of graduating within four years.

“In the La Verne experience, there are no wasted courses and you still graduate in the same amount of time,” Lieberman said. “La Verne experience courses become all a part of that, if you’re very efficient.”

Eventually, the goal is to fully integrate the sophomore experience with the GEs, so that the two-unit course is not an additional requirement, but instead fulfills requirements in place already, Reed said.

“They are requirements, so you can look at requirements as being forced or being guided,” Redman said. “It all depends if you want to look at it as the glass half-full or the glass half empty. If you want to feel like you’re being forced, then you have every right, but the reality of it is that you’re not taking anything different than what you would have to take anyway.”

Some freshmen that have had difficulty with the FLEX program are hoping the sophomore experience will do a cleaner job its first time out.

“(FLEX) was a little restrictive when it came to us choosing what classes we wanted,” freshman political science major Kalyn Taylor said. “While it was a great idea, it’s a new program and has some problems to fix.”

“I don’t blame the students for feeling a little frustrated, because we had a new president, she has an agenda, so we were trying to get her off the ground,” Redman said. “I think the FLEX thing went really well, but it did create some angst among some students because they don’t see the big picture.”

The big picture is to provide a curricular structure when having students involved in campus events, Amini said.

Another freshman, psychology major Shea Gaier had a bad experience with the FLEX program because she was unable to drop a course she did not want without dropping the program requirement itself.

“I feel nervous about the incoming freshmen because they don’t know what they’re getting into,” she said.

Overall, there has been a general feeling that there has been little student input in the decision making process.

“It would be a good idea for them to involve students in the process; I don’t know to what degree they are,” Delgado said. “Are students really involved, or are they being involved in simply having pizza with the president and asking questions? That, to me, is not the same thing. They may want to involve students.”

“We probably have not communicated as well as we should have with students,” Reed said. “There hasn’t really been a well-orchestrated event to get feedback from students.”

Despite any criticisms of the new sophomore experience, administrators implementing the program remain optimistic.

Even more, there are already plans to for the junior and senior experiences to launch in the upcoming future as well.

“We’re looking at junior and senior experiences and for these next parts they’ll be created out of current components,” Reed said.

Two of these components would be blending the major requirements and using the senior capstone projects.

The junior and senior experiences are likely to create some discussion as well.

“Every four to five years there are curriculum changes, so there’s always a bit of nervousness for the generations in between,” Reed said. “Those students always have the option of going with the new or staying with the old.”

“The junior year experience concerns me more, because then at this point they want to pair up classes with departments,” Delgado said.

“There I think they crossed over into an area that is academic freedom, telling people in their discipline how they should run their major. I think that violates academic freedom as far as I’m concerned.”

With the next three phases of the La Verne experience in progress, there are many details to be figured out before they are fully implemented.

Robert Penalber can be reached at robert.penalber@laverne.edu.

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