First-year seminars providing students with equity-minded approaches

Jim Carlson
October 29, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — An equity team consisting of about a dozen faculty and staff is piloting a curriculum that allows College of Education freshmen taking first-year seminar classes at Penn State during the fall semester to examine what their own values are and how their values and beliefs shape how they view the world.

The curriculum takes on equity-minded approaches through equity modules and the goal is to consider ways of cross-curricular implementation, not just in first-year seminars.

“But it made sense to start with the first-year seminars this year,” said Efraín Marimón, assistant professor of education, who is co-chairing the equity team with Elizabeth Smolcic, associate professor of education (English as a second language) and co-facilitating first-year seminar classes with doctoral student Carlos Medina. 

“The big piece of this is both the immediate modules, but also thinking about our students in terms of their journey for the next four or five years at Penn State and beyond,” said Marimón, who also is the director or the Restorative Justice Initiative and director of the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship. “And moving from theory to practice is a key motivator. Typically, students respond in abstractions and what-ifs and one of the things this does is present very real situations or scenarios that have students think about immediate implications, short- and long-term, in terms of practice,” he said.

Class objectives include identifying considerations for creating an inclusive space; examining strategies/interventions to create inclusive educational spaces; identifying and critiquing personal biases; examining the role of power, race and identity in educational spaces; and making connections to practice and applying critical inquiry of equity issues.

The equity modules are implemented in each of the 18 first-year seminar classes to prompt deeper thinking by students who eventually might work in education policy, workforce or counselor education, or in-service teaching. “Our hope is to plant some seeds that will encourage (the students) to continue this type of engagement, both in their coursework — regardless of whether they’re College of Education classes or not — and also interpersonally with friends and families because this work requires that type of commitment,” Marimón said.

“It's less focused on delivering a very specific content as opposed to working to an inquiry-based model that has us think about what these social justice issues look like in practice.”


Doctoral student Carlos Medina instructs a first-year seminar class in the College of Education.

IMAGE: Jim Carlson

Medina said while he has learned a lot from Marimón after working with him for four years, he also learns from students. “What we do aligns with my own values and passions and it drives me to enjoy delivering these lessons,” he said. “Learning from students has been really rewarding, too, because it gives me a lot of ideas. 

“We work to meet students where they are and that informs us of what we should do next. I think about, how can we tap into their lived experiences to make these topics more tangible and to help unpack concepts they may not have thought of before?" said Medina. "How can we take concepts students are resonating with and integrate them into future lessons? What are tools and resources available for my students to tap into and learn more about social justice topics in their time here? Learning from my students and seeing them excited to learn more about these topics makes this work rewarding.”

Medina also sees the students react in different ways.

“I've seen students become more vulnerable with their own thinking processes, allowing themselves to process out loud with their peers, instead of just internally thinking about things and keeping it to themselves,” he said. “Part of those conversations are recognizing the complexity of these topics, and having students leave with questions rather than having a simple answer.”

Reading assignments throughout the semester are: creating an anti-racist classroom; gender bias in the classroom; value of cultural competency in confronting cultural dissonance; support LGBQ students’ safe space; and religious freedom and serving clients.

Marimón and Medina cited the College of Education’s broad commitment to racial equity and racial justice and are working with willing instructors who want to build these approaches across multiple sessions in their own classes, they said.

“We’re also thinking about what professional development could look like for those interested in continuing this work and facilitating those sessions,” said Medina. 

“But in this first pilot to this first group we want to get a feel for how students are responding, getting feedback from the facilitators, getting feedback from the instructors and then revisiting this in the spring," he added. "Then we’re planning to build this out next year so that we would have more instructors involved. They would be facilitating these same sessions with their students and kind of building this coalition.”


Assistant professor of education Efraín Marimón is helping facilitate curriculum that provides equity-minded approaches through equity modules to first-year seminar students in the College of Education. Here he talks with students in class during the fall 2019 semester.

IMAGE: CommAgency/Lily Tian Laregina

Medina’s class of 22 students meets in person. He uses Googles Slides to have students perform group work; he also implements Zoom breakout rooms during in-person classes to enable students to speak with other socially distanced students in the Waring Commons auditorium instead of just one or two in proximity. That, he said, allows the students to get a variety of perspectives from their peers.

“Allowing the students to feel more comfortable and allowing them to be vulnerable is one of the things Carlos does very well; I think that's his counselor education background,” Marimón said. “We think the inquiry-based approach is key. We aren’t telling students what to think; we are working students through issues that prompt them with questions and leave them asking us more questions. And I think that's key to this work, because we don't want to pretend that we have answers to very complex issues.”

Students bringing those issues to consciousness is paramount, according to Marimón and Medina. “If we pretend we're not looking at something that presents some ethical dilemmas or some tensions, then we're doing ourselves a disservice; we need to bring those to the consciousness,” Marimón said. “We're seeing this and we're thinking about race, we're thinking about LGBT, we're thinking about religion. We're hoping students get to where they start to recognize some dangerous practices that we need to be mindful of. But it is the inquiry-based approach that really takes us there.”

One of Medina’s variety of instructional methods includes a spectrum activity using a word cloud. Students using their phones look at a picture or answer a posed question and text one-or two-word answers. The more particular words are used, the bigger they become on a screen, indicating prevailing thoughts, and those words are used to lead the facilitation. 

“(The students) said they really appreciated having an opportunity to share their own thoughts and bring in their own experiences without feeling like they were being judged,” Medina said. “They felt that they were free to say how they felt and believed, and not shut down for sharing their thoughts on these topics, which they appreciated. We worked hard to come up with a way of doing this lesson in pandemic times while staying true to our pedagogical commitment.”

That commitment is to make an impact, to make a difference.

“I wouldn't do it if we didn't see a possibility for impact … with the caveat that that this work is hard,” Marimón said. “We're only really scratching the surface and that there's so much more that I think needs to happen and so many things that we anticipate serving as some significant hurdles to get there.

“We're very, very careful, and not that we shouldn't be celebratory of things that happened in the classroom, but we're very careful. We’re cautiously optimistic about the things that we see happening. But we’re mindful that this is hard work and it's going to take a lot more than what we're doing, and we're already putting in a ton of sweat equity,” he said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021