Looking back at University Experience

Last month, an envelope marked with my messy handwriting arrived at my family’s home address. Inside was a letter written in 2008 by a newly 18-year-old me.

With three years of university life under my belt, I had entirely forgotten about this letter and its conception. It was the final assignment for my University Experience (UE) course in fall 2008.

Courtney Lewellen, my former UE instructor and a current advisor in the criminology department, instructed us to compose a reflection about our first semester at USF and describe our hopes for the next four years. Lewellen promised to send these letters to our home addresses at the beginning of our senior year.

Lewellen said she hoped the letter, an idea she got from fellow UE instructor and Assistant Director of the Campus Recreation Center Alfred Gentilini, would allow her students to comprehend how far they had come during their time at USF.

If you took UE at some point during your freshman year, you probably remember at least some parts of it. Maybe it’s because you thought it was a massive waste of your precious time. Or maybe you can’t get the image of your classmate putting a condom on a banana while wearing goggles that simulate inebriation out of your head. Maybe you found it helpful and informative.

The course is geared toward first-year students and focuses on the development of skill sets that promote success at the university level. It is designed to get students acclimated to university life.

“There are core competencies that UE courses have always included such as time management, study skills and career exploration,” said University Experience instructor and USF alumna April Sager. “But, as students change, so does the need to expand the curriculum. Technology, civic engagement and education abroad opportunities are dynamic areas that will be essential for our students to get plugged into.”

Sager knows firsthand how helpful UE can be for freshmen, having taken the class in her first year as a USF student.

As comprehensive as the course is designed to be, UE has been the subject of much debate among USF students. I can recall an instance in which Lewellen asked everyone in the class to write a campus-related question on a piece of paper and put it in a hat at the front of the room. I peeked at the paper of the person sitting next to me, which read, “Why does this class exist?”

Some UE classes are major-specific, and immediately introduce students to the expectations and requirements in their field of study. This gives students the opportunity to find an early escape if they are unhappy with the path they’ve chosen.

Freshman Cameron Dunn is currently enrolled in a UE class for pre-health profession majors only. He has quickly learned that the pre-med route might not be right for him, he said.

“The class has good information,” Dunn said. “I kind of want to switch my major after I’ve learned about all of the crazy requirements.”

Admittedly, as an incoming freshman in 2008, I was less than thrilled to see UE listed on the class schedule I was assigned at orientation. After expressing my misgivings to an adviser, I was told that the course was highly recommended for freshmen and that it would provide me with valuable information. Unconvinced, I attended every UE class that semester with a closed mind and a poor attitude.

Cut to 2011. While I was knee deep in the excessive amounts of work and responsibility that characterize a college student’s senior year, I was sent a copy of the letter from my mother. It served as an instant reminder of a time when college was primarily about exploring a new-found freedom. No upper-level course work. No job. No fear of the impending entry into the “real world” – the predominant freshman experience.

“It hopefully gave my students an accurate look back to their thoughts, feelings and aspirations and the ability to confirm whether they reached their goals and how their path has changed along the way,” Lewellen said. “In some cases, perhaps it will give them the opportunity and motivation to accomplish something they have not yet done in their last year here.”

My aspirations were those of an idealistic 18-year-old – learn French and travel Europe, support myself financially, live in New York City. Three years later, I don’t speak a word of French, I can barely afford groceries and Hillsborough County is certainly not New York City. But, it is refreshing to recall the unabashed hope that I possessed upon entering college, when anything seemed possible.

Having interned at Creative Loafing over the summer, I’m happy to say that at least one of my hopes has come to fruition.

“I’d like to be doing something creative that challenges me,” I wrote myself three years ago. “My hope is to become a journalist, and I would love to have had a really cool internship or job at this point.”

Melissa West, a senior majoring in physics, said she had completely forgotten writing the letter. West said she had no idea how rigorous her academic life would be.

“It is actually kind of funny to see how naive I was freshman year,” West said. “I have definitely grown a lot and have a realistic view of where my future is heading.”

Thanks to the arrival of the letter, I’ve gotten rid of the animosity I’d been harboring against UE. And while some of the course information may be more stimulating than the rest, the instructors admirably intend to equip students with tools needed to succeed at USF