College of Education promotes many activities for incoming students

Jim Carlson
December 16, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Just as first-year students want to become engaged in many activities on the Penn State campus, the College of Education strives to quickly become an integral part of their lives as well.

College administrators leveraged resources this fall to try to increase engagement for students, and started by reaching out to education students who commenced classwork remotely over the summer months or were transitioning from Commonwealth Campuses in order to touch base. 

Methods included a mentoring program where the older students on the Education Student Council connected with incoming students; first-year seminars; a special living option; and a book club that the council will conduct for undergraduate and graduate students this spring.

“We have this intentional focus on engaging our first-year students who are in-residence or first-year students who are remote and connecting them as well, so it's a multi-pronged approach,” said Rayne Sperling, associate dean for undergraduate and graduate studies.

“For in-residence students, we intentionally made sure that all of our first-year seminar courses in the college are offered as career pathways offerings, so a student who comes to University Park will be able to enroll in an in-person, first-year seminar.”

Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, several of the courses first-year students take for entrance to major requirements have companion sections, according to Sperling.

“They're tying a remote set of students in with the same section as those that are in person so we can do breakout rooms that include both in-person and remote students," she explained.

Sperling noted that she thought students are “very appreciative” for their in-person classes. “I think they're also appreciative that if they're not here in person, that they're able to make academic progress,” she said. “Nobody is being held up, whether they're remote or whether they're in person, and that has been really important to us and a priority. 

“We're in helping professions. And I think that students really missed the amount of face-to-face contact that they're used to, and they miss being able to join each other in community. But I really think that our instructors are doing a great job on finding opportunities to connect students,” Sperling said.

First-year seminar topics are wide-ranging but each includes emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion and having difficult conversations. Sperling said that the newly renamed Office of Education and Social Equity helps with programming, and the college leveraged some Student Affairs health and wellness promotions to provide opportunities for students through their programming.

“Faculty teaching students who are enrolled remotely in our college entrance to major classes work closely with advising, and our advisers are making sure that they're accessible and reaching out to students and holding all the meetings that they would normally have,” Sperling added.

“I also think for the first-year students, a part of the first-year experience is finding ways to help them connect to Penn State in the college and our other communities. I think that in general our students are pretty well-connected even from the beginning. I do attribute a lot of that to our really strong advising staff; they really do reach out to students. I think they do a great job, and our students really appreciate our advisers and just their work,” she said.

The Education Student Council also held virtual board game nights, a virtual escape room and other opportunities to help keep students engaged despite the remote setting. 

Another option to assist students on the academic and social aspects of early college life is the special living option (SLO), also called Education House, in which a residence hall floor is designated solely for education students.

SpencerSterner

Spencer Sterner is a resident assistant in Pinchot Hall, which serves as a special living option for some College of Education students.

IMAGE: Provided

Spencer Sterner, a secondary social studies education major from Doylestown, is the resident assistant in Pinchot Hall for 18 students who chose to be a part of the SLO.

“I chose to be an RA for other education majors because I am passionate about teaching and was excited about the opportunity to work with people who share similar passions,” Sterner said.

“I also figured that I could be of more assistance to this specific population of residents because of my own experience in the College of Education. I see some parallels between being an RA and being a teacher because in both roles, one must build relationships with the students they are working with and help them to navigate some challenging situations. I believe that being able to practice that as an RA will help me as I go into my teaching career, and I also hope that in doing this, I can be a model to these other future educators,” he said.

Sterner also was involved with and spoke highly of the college’s in-person first-year seminars. “I have had the opportunity to attend this with my residents so that I can be familiar with the topics they are talking about and also offer any help that I can in the course,” he said. “We had this class once a week in Chambers Building, and the walks to and from there also provided great opportunities to get to know each other.”

Because of various restrictions required by the pandemic, Sterner said it was helpful that he and the 18 students all lived on the same floor in Pinchot Hall. “With limited opportunities to engage with others on campus this year, the residence hall is one of the few communities where people see each other regularly,” he said. 

“This has fostered some great friendships among the residents in Education House, and I believe it really has been a bright spot for these students amid the difficulties of the pandemic. I know it has certainly been a bright spot for me, and I am very thankful for the great community Education House has.”

Overall, Sperling praised the students and their mentors for working hard, being patient and seeking opportunities for engagement. “We've been trying to keep students connected to the college, even though our student groups can't meet in person right now … so it's kind of challenging,” she said.

“They're (students) making more of an effort to kind of stay together, and that's really helpful. And the leadership team and the faculty and almost everybody has really pulled together to provide for our students, and that feels good.”

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Last Updated December 17, 2020