Developing Culturally Aware and Civic-Minded Students in an Interdisciplinary Freshman Learning Community

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2018

Stetson University
Miami, Florida


While the goal of all college courses is to facilitate students’ abilities to conduct academic research and produce original scholarship in their respective disciplines, it is often the introductory, foundational courses that serve as transformational gateways in this academic process of becoming. In fact, it has been recognized that becoming a college student is quite an emotional process (Hazel et al., 2008). Grappling with the changes brought on by college is a major challenge all students encounter. Students come to campus in need of integration into their new community; in this process, depending on the level of integration, they may feel a variety of emotions, from dislocation, alienation, and feelings of loss to excitement and exhilaration. As the process develops over time, it is probable that nearly every student vacillates between the more negative and positive dimensions of emotion as they adapt to their new environment. For many students, college also becomes their first prolonged, lived introduction to cultural diversity and, for some, a confrontation with the cultural particularisms of their upbringing. This brings about its own set of emotional responses that need attention. These students need the tools to process these feelings and to reshape, if they so choose, their own cultural identities around the more culturally inclusive, pluralistic, and civic-minded goals of higher education.

Although policymakers, parents, faculty, and administrators are often more focused on increasing graduation rates and their students’ employability upon graduation, several large-scale studies demonstrate a very small change in student attitudes concerning community engagement, diversity, and leadership over their careers as college students (Dey et al., 2009; Franke et al., 2009). We believe this calls for a rethinking of campus practices intended to cultivate connection and to demonstrate the importance of community involvement and multiculturalism. Colleges and universities play an important role in socializing generations of citizens and therefore need to be attuned to best practices for accomplishing this vital democratic function.

Toward this end, it is imperative that academic institutions step in not only to disrupt certain modes of student thinking that they bring with them to college, including assumptions about student-teacher and student-to-student interactions, but also to help students reintegrate and build back up their identities in the image of the educational goals of a particular college, university, or even an individual classroom (Zepke et al., 2006). Student engagement and connectedness become key to this process. Methods of engaging students, both inside and outside of the classroom, and of connecting them with one another were the focus of our session at the FRN Symposium in Orlando. We discussed ways to raise students’ cultural awareness through the process of disruption and reintegration in the context of a freshman learning community at SUNY Farmingdale State College. Our learning community combined introductory classes in English composition and sociology around the theme of cultural diversity.

Social Integration and Pluralistic Goals

Given the fact that Farmingdale is a largely commuter college where students often juggle employment and family responsibilities with their coursework, engaging students can sometimes be quite challenging. Learning communities provide an opportunity to achieve the goals of integration, connectedness, and a commitment to pluralism. Borrowing from Soria and Mitchell (2015), we recognize that the key to successful learning communities lies in their interdisciplinary, active learning approach to knowledge. The added value is in the community aspect of the learning environment, not just the substantive information that students gain access to. The collaborative nature of the learning community lends itself to student engagement and the development of a sense of responsibility to the collective, an experience that translates well to the civic-minded goals of higher education (Johnson & King, 1996; Brower, 1997).

Collaborative learning environments also motivate students toward personal development and openness to diversity (Cabrera et al., 2002). Learning community students are more likely to have serious discussions with students whose political, religious, ethnic, or economic background is different than theirs (Rocconi, 2011). Positive interactions with a diverse set of peers tend to cultivate in students higher levels of social and cultural awareness, which allows them to improve their perspective-taking abilities, provides them with a sense of empowerment in civic matters, and fosters in them a greater concern for the public good (Astin, 1993; Sax, 2000; Hurtado, 2007).

The Freshman Learning Community: A Case Study

Our course was for first-semester freshmen only. Class took place in back-to-back time slots, two days per week, so these students essentially spent an entire morning together twice a week. We combined in-class writing, discussion, and assignments that revolved around an out-of-class field trip to a museum in New York City. Our campus is incredibly diverse, drawing from both the working and middle classes, as well as from a variety of racial and ethnic groups. A significant portion of our students can be considered “new Americans” and were raised by first generation immigrants. Our proximity to a large immigrant-receiving city and relatively inexpensive tuition create a classroom where a variety of lived experiences coexist. Bridging these differences and developing bonds of similarity become challenges for all faculty on campus, but especially for faculty teaching classes that explicitly require students to evaluate and understand social difference. Although there is incredible diversity within a 45-mile radius of campus, there remains significant social distance between groups. Many students come to campus with no real experience communicating with students from different backgrounds than theirs, nor do they have much practice in how to discuss what can be emotional topics in a classroom with such diversity. We felt that our learning community might be able to bridge some of this social distance as well as allow students to access the tools of communication needed to reside in an increasingly global world. In order to do this, writing became a key communication tool that we felt allowed students some safe space to develop these abilities, while also giving them the confidence to speak out loud in class when potentially difficult conversations were happening.

The Classroom as a Site for Socialization and Cultural Exploration

The learning community curriculum, beginning with the selection of texts, was designed to encourage deep reflection on the role one’s community plays in shaping one’s cultural identification. Consequently, the curriculum focused on upending the unchallenged assumptions that many students bring to college about who they are as students, as employees, and as citizens in a democratic society. The goal, ultimately, for our learning community was to create a classroom culture where students felt a sense of agency, a culture that they could not only identify with, but one that they could also influence. The texts for both courses were selected for their emphasis on the value of personal reflection, intellectual inquiry, and social and political analysis. For example, Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “The Myth of the Latin Woman,” which students read for their English composition course, deals with how the author addresses the common misperceptions she encountered regarding her Puerto Rican upbringing and culture. She discusses at length how women from Latin American cultures are routinely stereotyped and misperceived in North America. The students also read David Cole’s “Five Myths About Immigration,” which examines some of the unsupported beliefs that many Americans tenaciously hold onto about the causes and effects of immigration, along with sociologist Jean Anyon’s “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.”

In order to get students engaging with the texts, reflecting upon their own cultural identities, and interacting with one another in the classroom, they were assigned author excavation sheets to be filled out with each reading. They then not only brought their completed sheets to class to share with class partners, but were also required to post their responses to a class blog. The author excavation sheets were designed to move them away from superficial readings of the texts, and towards a process through which they learned to dig for deeper meaning. By the end of the semester, they became adept at not only analyzing the authors’ ideas and rhetorical strategies based on textual evidence, but also honed their abilities to integrate the authors’ ideas with their own ideas and lived experiences. After discussing their author excavation sheets with one another, the student pairs then shared the fruits of their discussion with the class, highlighting the similarities and differences of their opinions with those of the author and of other students.

Another classroom activity that helped students engage with one another and reflect on their own unexamined beliefs and biases involved having students interview each another about a time in their lives when they felt that they, like author Ortiz Cofer, had been stereotyped, misunderstood, or misperceived in some way based on their affiliation with one or more cultural groups. They then had to practice writing an introduction to their partner’s quoted statements that contextualized and explained their significance to the broader topic of cultural prejudice. This exercise generated lots of conversation among the students and, in some cases, close bonding. They realized that in order to complete the exercise, their narrow definition of the word “culture” had to be expanded. Many of them began to recount intriguing, astonishing, and often hilarious stories of cultural misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Getting Out of the Classroom

The class field trips to the Museum of the Chinese American (MOCA) in Lower Manhattan, and to the Studio Museum of Harlem, proved to be effective methods to further strengthen the social bonds that had begun to take root in our respective classrooms. Students traveled together to and from the museums via the Long Island Railroad and the New York City subway, giving them time to chat in a more informal setting. While at the museums, they worked on group assignments for which they had to pool their knowledge. Following our museum visits, we all sat down for meals together at nearby restaurants. Some students even stuck around the city to do some other sightseeing after our required class time was over. The field trip was probably the single most important way that students learned to trust faculty not just as purveyors of expertise, but also as people who genuinely cared about them and were curious to get to know them. Toward the end of the semester, some of the students were making social plans with one another and all of the students were discussing the work in their other classes. A distinctive culture had emerged among the students, one that was decidedly more gregarious, social, and involved in student affairs than the culture of silence and stoicism that was in evidence at the beginning of the semester.


When designing learning communities, it is vital to focus on those practices that facilitate student engagement: interaction between students, interaction between students and faculty, and collaboration on course material. These are the seeds of engagement that have the potential to impact not only the educational gains of individual students, but also the fabric of the campus more generally. We believe that learning communities are but one part of a broader institutional approach. This approach should reject the growing movement to view students as consumers shopping around the marketplace (i.e., campus) for the best individual means to gainful employment, and instead view students and the campuses they operate within as communities of practice that hold the potential for broader human development goals, as well as goals more narrowly tailored to the labor market. In our small case study, the forms of engagement in the learning community did provide added value for students relative to their traditional courses. Importantly, we argue that this is not merely a byproduct of the smaller class size. Our campus typically has no courses over 40 students, so although the learning community was smaller, it was not dramatically so. The structure of the learning community provided continuity around the course theme as well as familiar faces. This approach cannot help but create an outcome of connectedness.

Incoming students often come to college with the expectation that classes will give them substantive information and practical skills needed for a career; our students were no different in this regard. The fact that, from the beginning of the course, it was clear to them that the learning community was about more than passing on information on which they would be assessed, and that it was more important to us that their own human development be the focus, resulted in an energy in the classroom that was unmatched in our prior experience. The focus on students as “people in the world” generated bonds of mutual respect and gave them the impression that they were being treated as adults, something that some 18-year-olds have not had much experience with. Although our focus was on writing and cultural diversity, we feel that once the culture of a classroom is one of collaboration and comfort just about any other course goal has a great chance for success. The undoing of prior modes of learning is a difficult process that necessarily creates discomfort in both students and teachers, but one that we argue is completely worth the time and effort. The rewards of having active students in the classroom far outweigh any discomfort early in the process.


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Spring 2019: Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning