The Adventures of a First-Year Student
By Kristen Manieri
Photos by Judy Watson Tracy
More than 1,500 miles from the island life of her Trinidad home, Amy Teixeira might well have become homesick during her first weeks at Rollins College, missing her family and her favorite stew chicken. But within days she was fully immersed in campus life, thanks to the College’s innovative first-year student programming known as Rollins Explorations.
A “hit the ground sprinting,” full-tilt series of academic programs and co-curricular initiatives, Rollins Explorations is rooted in the basic premise that the type of experience students have in their first year of college, and beyond, depends significantly on what they experience in their first few weeks on campus. The concept is simple: Students who feel a sense of belonging and acceptance bloom where they are planted. Help them make friends, and the rest will generally work itself out.
By the end of Week One, Teixeira has made 40 friends.
The Class that Binds
First-year students begin to cluster in their Rollins College Conference (RCC) class. Launched in 1994, the RCC program brings together 15 to 17 incoming students in each of 30 different seminar classes with provocative topics such as Crime Scene Chemistry or The Physics of Avatar. Each course is led by a faculty member who is also designated as the students’ academic advisor.
“These courses build a sense of community,” said RCC Faculty Director Mario D’Amato. “Students join together in the classroom, on service-learning experiences, on field trips, in their residence halls, and during social events. They get to know each other, their faculty advisors, and their peer mentors really well throughout all the experiences and activities incorporated in their RCC.”
Teixeria is placed in the honors class Justice, Good, and Evil, taught by Professor of Legal Studies and Communication Marvin Newman and Professor of English Twila Papay. Over the course of the semester, she and her classmates meet three times a week to debate controversial topics. “The class is designed to get you involved. If you don’t talk, they get you to talk,” Teixeira said. There’s no hiding out in an RCC. “In high school, we just had to sit there and take notes,” she recalled. “Here, it’s about being involved and forming an opinion. It’s interactive learning.”
Teixeira describes her RCC as being “spirited” and “emotional,” and filled with fierce debates about topics like same-sex marriage, cannibalism, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and cloning. But mostly, she thinks of the formation of the group of people who launched her into Rollins life.
“RCC is the program that sends the message to students and parents that Rollins really cares about them,” Newman said. “Students are not ID numbers here.” The RCC becomes, by design, a surrogate family for each new student.
Amy under Their Wing
Key components of this “family” are the peer mentors. Teixeira’s been matched with juniors Isaac Carpenter, Lucas Hernandez, and Kelsey Beaumont. Not only do they attend all of her RCC classes, this trio is also charged with ensuring that Teixeira and her compatriots know about what’s happening on campus and participate in as much as possible.
“Peer Mentors create programs dedicated to teaching the students about what Rollins has to offer and also about the most important values the College holds—values Rollins instills in them to help them succeed here and after college,” Beaumont said. “In many cases, as with Amy’s RCC, students also learn more about the surrounding area through a community-service component somewhere in the Central Florida community.”
In addition, peer mentors regularly lead the RCC group on social outings, including campus arts and entertainment events such as this fall’s Annie Russell Theatre productions of Grease and Biloxi Blues. “I would have been completely lost without this structure,” Teixeira said. “My RCC group is like family to me. I don’t think I would have settled in as well without them.”
Beaumont firmly believes the retention rate of first-year students is contingent upon the success of Explorations. “The first-year program does not allow students to come to college and simply fade into the background; they have to take part in something and are therefore much more likely to succeed, and to want to succeed.”