First-year students discuss the benefits and detriments of the mandatory course

The Notre Dame Class of 2019 arrived on campus this fall as the first to participate in the Moreau First Year Experience (MFYE).  Announced in April 2014 and developed throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, the mandatory course has replaced the physical education requirement and runs for the entire academic year in two, semester-long, one-credit classes.

Each section of the class contains about 18 to 20 students and meets for 50 minutes once a week.  In April, Maureen Dawson, Assistant Dean in the First Year of Studies (FYS) told the Rover that one goal of the course was to group students with others living near them on campus so as to foster conversation outside of the classroom.

Sophomore Jake Wittenberg, who was a student representative to the design team for the MFYE, said he was happy with how the planning process played out.

“A great deal of time and effort was put into the development of the course, and professionals from a variety of backgrounds and positions at the university offered their expertise to create a truly unique class for first-years,” Wittenberg told the Rover.

Stephanie Ryckman serves as an instructor for the MFYE after being granted a one-year non-renewable contract.  All instructors in the physical education department who had been with Notre Dame for at least six years received this option.  Those interested in teaching in the MFYE had to apply for such a position.

“There have already been mixed feelings,” Ryckman said told the Rover.  “Some students have email[ed] former PE faculty to tell them they believe the program will fail.  This upset me because this program just started and it needs to be given a chance.  I think it has the potential to be really great.”

According to Ryckman, all instructors are provided with the same reading and video material, as well as writing assignments that must be given to students for each session of the course.

“We have the freedom of designing our lessons as long as they focus on the topic of the week and connect to the assignments and readings,” Ryckman said.

According to the course syllabus, the class will enable students to “act in accordance with community standards; make informed and appropriate academic decisions; seek recreation, exercise, and good habits to maintain health and well-being; develop cultural competency; and think intentionally about their choices, discern interests and make provisional plans.”

Wittenberg said that the curriculum planning process was completed by the end of the 2014-2015 academic year.

Among the university priorities listed are for students to “recognize moral and ethical questions in lived experiences” and to “deepen our students’ global engagement” through engagement with “diverse communities.”

“The class is structured to encourage students to apply the lessons they are learning to real-life situations that exist at Notre Dame, helping [them] to understand and manage the complexities of college life across a broad range of topics,” Wittenberg added.

For each class, students must prepare a 200-word reflection based on a specific prompt.  Submissions are graded out of 20 points, receiving either a zero for incomplete work, a 10 for work that does not incorporate the readings and videos, or a 20 for a thoughtful assignment using the assigned material.  Students cannot receive any grade other than a zero, 10, or 20 out of 20 points.

There will be two integrated projects during the semester, as well as a capstone project.  Students will receive a letter grade for each semester of the course.

Wittenberg noted that each class session is structured similarly.  “Students arrive at class having begun the lesson at home and are encouraged to bring their experiences and thoughts to class for discussion,” he said.

Each week, the course considers a different topic, facilitated by reading and video assignments and various campus departments.  Because of the small class size, students are required to drive the discussion, and active participation is a large component of each student’s final grade.

“The success of discussion depends on your group, I think,” freshman Sarah Ortiz from Lewis Hall said to the Rover.  “When we have to be told by the teacher to talk about something, it’s a little more constrained.”

Over the summer, students began what the syllabus terms “Pre-matriculation Modules,” comprised of training, Building Community the Notre Dame Way (BCND), and academic honor code.  August’s Welcome Weekend—the orientation programming that replaced “Frosh-O” for freshman move-in this year—incorporated themes from the course.

Week one of the MFYE centered on the topic “Community and the ND Family,” featuring campus spotlights from the Office of the President, First Year of Studies, and Division of Student Affairs.  Students told the Rover that class discussion centered around the material covered over the summer.

During week two, first-year students considered intersectionality and cultural competency, which included programming from the Gender Relations Center, Multicultural Student Programs and Services, and the Office of Community Standards.

“We basically talked about identity and diversity,” Jennifer Jordan, a freshman in Lyons Hall told the Rover. “We discussed how can we stop racial, social, cultural discrimination and bias, and eradicate assumptions and stereotypes.”

According to a number of freshmen, the assigned article for this unit of class was about 10 pages in length and was entitled “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.”

To facilitate class discussion, students watched a video entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” which presented the story of a Nigerian woman’s experience after immigrating to the U.S.

“It was a warning against stereotypes and how they don’t tell the complete story,” Jordan explained.

While a number of students said they believe there is a positive idea motivating the class, some have complaints about the way it has unfolded thus far.

“I’ve heard from some people that they like it,” Jordan said.  “People enjoy the conversations and the topics when they have a good group.”

“It’s only supposed to be an hour a week of homework, but really it’s a lot more than that because you have to read a lot, watch videos, and write thoughtful responses,” said David Carmack, a freshman from Fisher Hall.

“It seems very much like we just have to do this,” Ortiz said. “It’s a little heavy-handed.”

Keenan White, a first-year student living in Ryan Hall, said she thinks the MFYE has the potential to cover a number of valuable topics, including the rationale behind Notre Dame’s community building politics, applying for research grants and internships, and developing good study habits.

“[I]nstead of making Moreau [First Year Experience] worth our time, its seems that it was rather arbitrarily thrown together, maybe without giving much regard at all to the content we are supposed to be studying,” White said.

“It is nice to be able to get to know other people in my class during discussion,” Chris Heffner of Fisher Hall told the Rover.  “But the readings can be poorly chosen.  They haven’t really explained the purpose or objective of the class yet.”

“I do like is that it’s a relaxed setting and you get to meet everyone in the class on a personal level,” Carmack added.

Carmack also argued that physical activity will not be enough of a focus in the new class.  “The overall objective of the class is noble, but I think removing physical education was not a good move because not only do good students have a good mind, but they are supposed to stay healthy.  Physical education is an integral part of that,” he said.

Jason Zinn, a freshman in Fisher, said he thinks it is a good idea to promote social awareness on campus.  “But the way that it’s delivered in class leaves students feeling like they’re wasting time with a class that’s not interesting or necessary when they have a more busy class schedule,” he said.

“The intention is good, but the videos are often either completely uninformative, or are videos that we were already required to watch before coming to campus during the Building Community the Notre Dame Way sessions,” White went on.

“Beyond that,” she continued, “the prompts rarely have any explicit connection to the readings and videos, and nor do the discussion topics that the faculty and staff members are supposed to present.  The lack of organization is not only frustrating, but even insulting to perfectly capable and intelligent Notre Dame students.  Students have no respect for the program as a whole because they don’t see any utility in it.”

“It’s interesting, but the readings are terrible,” said freshman Ethan Williams from Fisher Hall.  “I think it’s a good concept but it hasn’t been implemented well so far.  With some improvements it could be a good class.”

“This is not to say that in the future MFYE couldn’t be incredibly beneficial, even with simple changes like topic amendments, but I think that it’s safe to say there is certainly plenty of room for improvement,” White concluded.

Alexandra DeSanctis is a senior political science major living in a huge single in Pangborn Hall.  She is enjoying her (hopefully) last heat wave with no air conditioning.  Email her at