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Unpacking the Moreau First Year Experience



One generation of Notre Dame students later, the Rover analyzes the Moreau First Year Experience

Four years ago, a new course began here at Notre Dame, entitled the Moreau First Year Experience (MFYE), as a collaborative effort between First Year of Studies and the Division of Student Affairs. This two-semester freshman course (one credit in the fall and one credit in the spring) was inspired by Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, as well as by similar courses taught at peer institutions across the country.

This First Year class replaced the physical education requirement which had existed for decades. According to the MFYE website, its goal is to help “new students to integrate their academic, co-curricular, and residential experiences.” It is “organized around multiple themes, including orientation to University life, health and wellbeing, community standards, cultural competence, academic success, spiritual life, and discernment.”

Moreau classes are comprised of about 20 first year students and led by about 50 different instructors, who are Notre Dame faculty and professionals. The syllabus focuses on student-based learning, integrating a flipped-classroom style and a discussion-based class period. Students are encouraged to think critically and independently about both the college experience and more broadly about life’s challenges.  

A hope of the MFYE is that “students come to understand the complexity and expectations of the Notre Dame community, take advantage of crucial academic and University resources, learn how to cultivate and maintain a healthy and well-balanced lifestyle, become aware of and engage with a variety of communities, heighten their understanding of diversity and inclusion, and think deeply about their academic, creative, professional, and spiritual lives.”

Now that the first class to have taken “Moreau” graduates in the Spring, the Rover is launching a series of articles exploring the effectiveness of the Moreau First Year Experience and whether it has met its goal within the university. Our first interview is with Rev. Canon Hugh Page, Dean of the First Year of Studies.

The Rover: What is your role within the Moreau First Year Experience?

As Dean of the First Year of Studies, I work with Erin Hoffmann Harding (Vice President for Student Affairs), Lauren Donahue (Program Director for New Student Engagement – Office of Student Affairs), and Jennifer Fox (Assistant Dean – First Year of Studies) in providing general oversight for the Moreau First Year Experience (MFYE). I am also one of the instructors, having taught at least one section of the course in each of the previous four semesters. I currently teach two sections. Ms. Harding and I (as chair) were part of the Provost-appointed ad hoc committee in Academic Year (AY) 2013 – 2014 that developed the proposal for the creation of what would become MFYE.

The Rover: What would you say is the University’s desire for the Moreau experience?

In many respects the University wants MFYE to help provide an extended welcome and orientation to on-campus life at Notre Dame as well as to the teleological foci of an undergraduate education shaped by the charism of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

By placing students into a small discussion-intensive environment, opportunities are created for sustained conversations with peers and course instructors about pivotal issues that impact our common life on campus and beyond. Moreover, the stage is set in such interactions for the establishment of enduring friendships. Our hope overall is that these two classes will contribute to a holistic education – i.e., one that engages the physical, intellectual, and spiritual development of students and is consistent with Blessed Basil Moreau’s aim of, “bringing young people to completion.”

My own desire is that MFYE enables first-year students to take advantage of three invitations issued by a Notre Dame education: i.e., to explore, to dream, and to become difference makers. Such, in my mind, is essential for students to become what I term compassionate intellectuals.

The Rover: What sort of changes has Moreau seen in the past four years?

During the past four years, we have seen: excitement about the course within our cohort of instructors grow; commitment to continuous improvement in class content and delivery increase; participation in the course design matrix by students intensify – i.e., with the creation of a Moreau Student Advisory Council; applied research derived from data mining on student work for MFYE intensify and gain international acclaim; and student perceptions of the course – as measured by Course Instructor Feedback (CIF) data – improve measurably each of the past three years.

During the initial phase of implementation, there was understandable concern on the part of students, alums, and others about whether this curricular innovation would add value to our undergraduate experience as successor to the Physical Education requirement. Those of us administering and working within MFYE have been heartened by the many ways in which it has complemented our efforts to enhance our nationally recognized first-year experience.

The Rover: Has the Moreau class been well-received in the university, by parents, by faculty, by students? Why or why not?

As noted above, the CIF information and anecdotal feedback we have received suggests that it is succeeding in its general aims. Members of the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC), our Board of Trustees, and many others have been complimentary of its breadth, integrative focus, emphasis on both welcome and inclusion, and exposure of students to the “pillars” supporting an education in the CSC tradition – Mind, Heart, FamilyZeal, and Hope.

Many have reported that awareness of these foundational elements has significantly enhanced their appreciation of what Notre Dame offers undergraduates. In AY 2015 – 2016, the course was met with some skepticism and resistance on the part of students and others in our community. Such now appears to have lessened. Furthermore, requirements like MFYE, here and elsewhere, will likely always have detractors. However, if the recent article by Zach Klonsinski in the August 29, 2018 issue of Notre Dame Magazine is an indicator, there are those on campus that would place MFYE among the “cool classes” available to undergrads.

There is, of course, always work to be done. A course like MFYE must be subject to constant review and modification if it is to remain dynamic, relevant, and meaningful. Those of us charged with leadership of this initiative are committed to doing this important work.

Monica VanBerkum is a junior studying anthropology and theology. She is the proud McWell commissioner of Cavanaugh Hall, which mostly means she gets to plan overnight oats events whenever she wants free breakfast. Contact Monica at mvanber1@nd.edu.

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