A Final Freshman Note
Learning community participants reflect on their first-year college experience
BY MONIQUE BEELER
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a yearlong project in which Cal State East Bay Magazine followed the progress of first-time freshmen enrolled in the University’s Learning Community Clusters program.
Last September, when Allison Armour, Jamel Jackson, Elmo Rey Arciaga, and the other 50 some freshmen enrolled in the “Beats, Physics and the Mind” Learning Community met for their first lecture, barely a student in the room uttered a sound. Bashful college newcomers, they sat politely, quietly at their desks, only tentatively raising a hand or voicing a thought at the prodding of their physics instructor, the bearded and bespectacled William “Dr. Bill” Pezzaglia.
During the three quarters that followed, students participating in “Beats, Physics and the Mind” — one of 21 CSUEB learning community clusters focusing on themes from “Biology of Humans” to “Spirituality Meets the Creative Spirit” — took at least one class, plus a general studies course, together each quarter. Long-term studies have referred to this hallmark Cal State East Bay program, in which all freshmen enroll, as a national model that produces students with stronger critical thinking, writing, and teamwork skills than their peers who don’t participate in a learning community.
“Beats, Physics and the Mind” students took three classes related to music: Physics 1200: Behind the Music; Philosophy 1303: Introduction to the Philosophy of Art; and Music 1085: Introduction to Audio Production.
In teams, they penned verses, mixed and recorded original musical compositions in the studio, and studied acoustics and harmonic principles in laboratory experiments.
Together, they dissected the meaning of pop song lyrics through philosophical discourse, and each learned to construct and support an intellectual argument, verbally and in essay form.
During their down time, they danced together at parties, hung out in classmates’ apartments at Pioneer Heights, shared meals at the Dining Commons, and created a video about their freshman year experience.
In their own words, many say, they formed a family.
A noteworthy year
“This cluster pretty much made my freshman year,” says Dominic Skipper, 19, of San Francisco, who plans to double major in business and sociology.
By the time they met for a finals presentation during spring quarter, the atmosphere surrounding the eclectic group — made up of students from as nearby as Hayward and as distant as Taiwan and whose declared majors run the gamut from business to theatre — had changed dramatically from the first day of school. As they huddle together for a group photo in the back corner of instructor John Hidalgo’s spring quarter audio production course, members of the cluster razz each other good-naturedly and chatter non-stop.
Hidalgo and fellow instructors who taught elements of the interdisciplinary “Beats, Physics and the Mind” during 2008-09 note the remarkable closeness of members of the learning community. Students often spent time together working on projects in Hidalgo’s classroom long after the class session had ended.
It’s one sign that the program works.
Following a three-year study of learning community programs nationwide, including Cal State East Bay’s, Syracuse University scholars in a 2007 report to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation concluded that high levels of student involvement made a difference in student success and “generates positive self-images, enhances motivation, and commitment.” Additionally, the personal ties that arise from interactions between learning community students — particularly through shared learning experiences — results in social and academic support that is instrumental to learning and to continuing their college education, according to the study.
“This group worked (together) very well,” says Hidalgo about “Beats, Physics and the Mind” participants. “Even the quiet ones were drawn out. It can be hard to work as a team. That’s not a skill you necessarily expect of freshmen. These guys were very solicitous of each other’s input.”
Students also listen respectfully to each other during the final presentation when each team of four must play for their peers an original song they composed, recorded, and produced collaboratively. No one is marked down for singing off key or failing to produce Dylan-caliber lyrics. The focus of the course, and the final, Hidalgo explains, is more technical than artistic.
But students had plenty of opportunities during the year to show off their creativity. In the general studies course, taught by Sahar Haghighat, students regularly wrote essays. For many assignments, Haghighat also allowed and encouraged creative expression, receiving poems, songs, and an occasional video in lieu of a written paper.
For an assignment called “If I Was President,” Jamel, 19, of Stockton penned lyrics, strummed his guitar, and sang an original tune for his classmates outlining how he’d play the role of commander in chief. He later posted the song in his online portfolio cataloging samples of his work from his freshman year. At the end of spring quarter, Haghighat met with Jamel and each of her students for a review of their portfolios called “Here I Am.”
“I like writing songs,” Jamel tells Haghighat during the one-on-one meeting. “I want people to dig down and understand (my lyrics).”
Jamel’s online portfolio also contains writing samples, including an essay about his volunteer work in high school sending clothing and household goods to families in Liberia; a video showing his dance moves; and an image of President Barack Obama, who he counts as a source of inspiration.
“Your page is beautiful,” Haghighat says. “I’ve been really impressed with your work.”
‘We all learned so much’
It’s this kind of interaction with instructors that has contributed to Jamel’s growing confidence throughout his first year of college, he says.
One change he’s noticed in himself is a newfound comfort asking others for help, academic or otherwise. Other accomplishments he’s achieved during the year include writing better essays and supporting a thesis point by point.
“I got better about defining and making arguments,” Jamel says. “We all learned so much.”
Jamel and most of his “Beats, Physics and the Mind” classmates plan to return to CSUEB for sophomore year. But that doesn’t mean everything went seamlessly throughout their first year. Most learned quickly, for instance, that procrastination and college studies don’t mix successfully. Challenges sometimes arose — from financial aid hurdles to the need for extra tutoring — that most “Beats, Physics and the Mind” freshmen overcame. That wasn’t the case for Elizabeth Fualaau, 19, of Union City, who left school partway through winter quarter.
“I wasn’t doing well academically,” she says. “It was no one’s fault but my own. I was distracted by my surroundings … I just gave up.”
Instructors, including Haghighat and assistant professor of music Rafael Hernandez, who taught audio production during winter quarter, noticed Elizabeth’s struggles and absences as the second term progressed and offered extra assistance. Ultimately, Elizabeth says, the timing was not right for her.
“Cal State East Bay is a great school, but if you’re not fully committed then don’t start,” Elizabeth says. “I feel like I shouldn’t have started … But it was a great experience.”
Positive force for change
The majority of “Beats, Physics and the Mind” participants, however, demonstrate positive academic and personal progress at the conclusion of their first year in college. They say their families and friends have noticed changes: better grades, more focus, a willingness to speak up about beliefs, and a heightened sense of maturity.
“I work harder and am more goal-oriented,” says Allison, 19, of Tracy. “I have a better sense of the world now, and it helps me a lot everyday.”
Elmo, 19, of Oakland, says his study habits and discipline improved throughout his freshman year. He hits the books more often than in the past and has discovered new interests.
Raven Davis, 19, of Buffalo, N.Y., says her standards are higher as a result of her freshman year studies.
“I look for messages (in music) now, trying to find a deeper meaning,” says Raven, an art major. “And I listen to all the instruments used, when certain (instruments) come in and leave.”
Her tastes have changed, too. She finds herself listening less to rap and appreciating R & B more.
“In rap, the meaning of the songs most of the time are degrading or have no meaning,” Raven says.
By contrast, she enjoys the message and emotion she hears in recordings by classic rhythm and blues artists such as the Isley Brothers and Anita Baker. “I got into them more, because my parents and grandparents listen to them,” Raven says. “I also listen to a lot of Marvin Gaye, the Chi-Lites, and Martha Reeves.”
Her experience in the learning community has shaped her professional aspirations and inspired her to make audio production part of her future career plans.
Making the connection
With freshman year successfully behind them, how will learning community members approach their sophomore experience?
“There might be a little anxiety moving into next year without the learning community,” says Allison, a business major. “But not so much, because you have a feel for the college.”
As a sophomore, she suspects it will be “a little more complicated” getting to know people in her classes. But she’s already arranged to take an English and a psychology course with a “Beats, Physics & the Mind” pal, and she plans to spend time with friends she made during freshman year.
Most importantly, academically she’s transitioned successfully to the college level.
Music instructor Hidalgo says that students who participate in learning communities, where they are exposed to diverse subjects that aren’t overtly linked, such as art and religion or physics and music, emerge from the experience equipped with higher level thinking skills.
“Interdisciplinary education, being able to connect those dots, makes them much more sophisticated adults,” Hidalgo says. “Too often those (intellectual) connections don’t get made. I think it’s great this school’s helping to make those connections.”