John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What a Difference the First Year of College Can Make

What a Difference the First Year of College Can Make

I have devoted most of my exactly fifty-year career to trying the make the first year of American higher education a more positive experience for our students—in terms of their learning, personal growth, maturation, satisfaction, retention, self-esteem, and more. But I never stop asking what more/else can we do? And I keep looking for illustrations of what we do accomplish.

The traditional end of the conventional academic year for full-time college students is a good time to be reflecting on a question like this. So, what did we accomplish for our first-year students this particular year? And what a year it was! The year of Donald Trump’s election, deep national divide, and great disaffection, despair and anger on the part of students who rightfully believe that others do not think their “lives matter.”

Of course, we are all profoundly shaped by our own life experiences, from the past of long ago and the very immediate present. Hopefully, experiences in both and all domains give us college educators more empathy to understand our students, and in this case, what difference does the first year make.

Just the past April, I had to give a talk in Dallas and that happens to be the city where my wife, Betsy Barefoot, has a grandchild who chose to go there for her undergraduate education. Her choice was driven by many variables including the wishes of her parents, but mainly it was for the opportunity to play college varsity volleyball. She had been an all-around outstanding high school student with stellar academic, athletic, leadership and interpersonal skills. If ever there was a kid who was prepared for college this was one.

So, I secured her willingness to have me come out to campus and pay her a brief visit. She gave me a great gift, namely about three hours of her time. This included a tour of the campus including her residence hall room and a lunch with her significant other, a young man whom she had praised in advance to me because as she put it: “He is a real gentleman; he listens to me and we talk a lot.” She was having a very successful academic year. Dean’s List for first semester and looking like she would have an encore performance for second term. Making an extremely good social adjustment. Lots of friends. Nodded, smiled, and spoke to many students as she walked me around the campus. Obviously was very at home at the place. Compatible with all three of her room mates. Enjoying the volleyball even though she had been injured and was going to have to have knee surgery. This is an incredibly cheerful, positive, open, enthusiastic young woman. She remains focused on pursuing a long held academic and career goal: becoming an elementary school teacher. She is very focused, highly motivated. She maintains regular and excellent communication with her parents, who are the foundation for a very functional family with four children.

So, I asked her if she thought college had changed her any. She paused for a long time and finally shared that she thought it had—“somewhat” …”maybe a little……” But there was a tentativeness about her response. I wondered if it was because she hadn’t really been asking herself about that. Or if it was because she just had such a fundamentally positive disposition about everything and almost everyone. I concluded that she really didn’t know. She hadn’t had enough time or detachment to make a judgement about that.  She allowed as if she thought it had made her “somewhat” or “slightly” more “independent.” I have known this student since she was born, for 18 years, and if there were any changes as a result of the first year, they were very subtle and not discernible to my well-trained eye.

And it was inevitable that I would compare her to my own first year, what I had been like at the start, and where I found myself at the end of that year.

I think she arrived at college well adjusted. I did not.

She made good friends immediately. I did not.

She was immediately successful academically. I was not

She was on a varsity athletic team. I was on a junior varsity team (lightweight crew).

She had received an academic scholarship. I certainly did not.

She was the first child of her siblings to go to college. So was I.

She didn’t confess any initial homesickness to me. I was terribly homesick.

She had a declared major and a career orientation that is very strong, very certain. I had no major. Never did. Thank you Marietta College for not making me chose a major.

She terminated a “from back home” romantic relationship in the first year and entered a new one. I did neither. But should have.

She was very disciplined as a student. I was not.

She ended up on the Dean’s List after first semester. I ended up on academic probation.

She had fellow room mates who were also making a successful adjustment to college. I did not. My first room- mate was so homesick that he left college (and me) after the first six weeks! I didn’t know you could leave college. It wasn’t an option my father had given me! He was replaced by a second room-mate. He was a heavy drinker, often as he lay nearly prone in his bunk, from which he acquired the nickname “Bunky.” He also dropped out, flunked out, after the first year of college.

I got no sense that she had changed her views about organized religion. I changed mine, drastically, from a budding agnostic to a convinced agnostic. She had entered with a strong Christian faith, I had not. My introduction to sociology course destroyed what conventional religious notions I had left.

I finished the first year of college having rejected my parents’ political persuasion, a deep loyalty to the Republican party. I had never heard a good word about the Democrats until such came out of the mouths of some of my professors. My wife’s grandchild has two liberal Democrats for parents and I certainly caught no wind that their first-year student had changed her political persuasion.

I was not making good choices about my romantic life. She appears to be!

I had become very engaged with a number of professors. I was thriving in my relationship with my academic advisor. I visited many of my professors in their offices and some of them in their homes too. I have no sense that she has this kind of relationship with her faculty even though both of us had started at small, private colleges.

She is already planning a study abroad in the second semester of her sophomore year. I never developed any plan for study abroad. She is already way ahead of me in that regard.

She will end the first year with a much higher GPA than I did. All I can say in summary comparison on this point is that at least I managed to get off academic probation by the end of the first year.

She has a summer job lined up that is compatible with her career aspiration of being an elementary school teacher: that of a camp counselor. She has had this job lined up for a year. I had no job lined up when I went home. My father, not liking what he was seeing college do to me, thought I needed “a job where you will be in the real world and see how the other half lives!? He arranged a manual labor job for me in a factory for a company in which he was a senior executive. So, I became a unionized steelworker making beer cans in the pits of urban New Jersey.

In sum, the jury is in on me. It is still way out on this grandchild. She shows far more promise at this point than I did. But I am betting that college changed me far more than it will change her. I needed that. Maybe she doesn’t. We are very different people. I think I finished the first year more intellectually engaged, more intellectually transformed than she is. She is on her way far more to attaining her career objectives than I was at the same point. Hey, I didn’t have any career objectives. She is ending her first year happier than I, much more satisfied.

The first year of college was good for both of us. But she sure does show much more promise at the end of the first year than I did.

Let’s bring this back to you my reader: what are you trying to facilitate for your first-year students?

What do you most want for them?

What are you providing to make that happen?

What kind of priority are first-year students at your institution?

Are you trying to “transform” them in anything approaching the manner I think my college transformed me?

What kind of experiences did you have in your first year of college that serve as your experiential base of empathy for your own first-year students?

My first year of college was a case study for how a college could have done a whole lot more for me and how I could have done a whole lot better. This has profoundly influenced my work, my life, and thus many, many other lives as well. What can you say about your impact on first-year college students?

And by the way, I didn’t have a university 101, college success, first-year seminar type course. But I sure could have benefited from one. My alma mater has one now, for sure! And I am part of the reason for that.

What We Tell our Students May Matter More Than We or They Realize at the Time………..

When I was a very homesick, unsure, unfocused first-year student, failing most of my courses, one day my political science professor, R.S. Hill, asked me after class “Mr. Gardner, would you like to be a good student?” He really caught me by surprise, that he would ask me anything at all and what specifically he asked me. I stopped and thought about his question and answered that I would, silently acknowledging to myself I had no idea what I would have to do to become a “good student.” His answer astounds me to this day, some 56 years later. He said: “Well, for starters you would start reading a good newspaper.”

John: “And how would I go about doing that; what is a good newspaper?”

Professor Hill: “Well, of course, The New York Times. There is no other like it. You should read The Times because then you won’t need anyone, including me, to tell you what some politician or judge said or wrote. You will be able to read the full text of what was said or written and then you can decide for yourself what the meaning and the importance of the message.”

John: “Ok, sir, well how would I go about doing this?” (I truly didn’t know because I had grown up in a staunch Republican household where my father thought—and said—that The Times was a “communist newspaper” and he wouldn’t allow it in the house.” So, I knew that to read such a paper would be an act of sedition defying my father who was paying to send me to this college where this professor was giving me such advice.

Professor Hill: “Come with me, Mr. Gardner, and we will walk right now two blocks to “People’s News” where if you don’t want to read the daily copy in the College library you can have your own personal copy. The Times comes in every morning on the 11.22 Greyhound from Pittsburgh (the bus terminal being one block from the news store) and it will be available to you every day by noon. The Greyhound is never late (I had never thought of the Greyhound bus as an agent of civilization and an intellectual lifeline to the rural American heartland in southern Appalachia in Ohio and no one today would extend such a compliment to any airline).

And that’s how I started reading the daily Times, which I still do quite faithfully, in the paper edition, even though I also have a subscription for the on-line edition which I read when I am traveling.

And all because a professor introduced me to an adult habit. He explained also to me that “Mr. Gardner, you should know that in addition to you, the other most influential people in the world will be reading that same paper on the same day and will know then what you will know.” And fifty-six years later I still want to know what the most influential people in the world are reading each morning. And I know one who lives during the week at 1600 Pennsylvania who doesn’t like what he reads in The Times.

A few weeks later in the term, I had an appointment with my academic advisor, a professor of speech, one Dr. Thomas Fernandez. He reviewed my mid-term grades and made this pronouncement: “Mr. Gardner, you are the stupidest kid I have ever advised!” I left his office and removed the dagger he had inserted in my self-concept. I didn’t quite know if what he said could be true. I knew I wasn’t doing well, failing most everything. But was I really the “stupidest kid” the guy had ever advised?  But I made a decision anyway: to get another advisor. I was pleased it was easy to actually switch advisors, something many of our students probably ought to consider doing. And my successor advisor became one of the keys to my eventual success in college, Professor Kermit Gatten. He really embraced me and I began to flourish. He and his wife had me in their home for visits and meals numerous times. And his advice, which I took, served me incredibly well for the balance of my college career.  I later was told that my first advisor ultimately became a college president in Texas. Wonder how many other people he labeled as “stupid?”

Two years later, in another political science course, designated as “American Political Parties”, the professor was lecturing on the legal actions leading up to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs Board of Education, declaring legally segregated schools both unequal and unconstitutional. One of the preceding cases he discovered was one banning the infamous southern “white primaries,” which the Court struck down in 1944 in Smith vs. Alright. The only reason I remember this now is because of what followed. I asked the professor, Eugene Murdock, what the court’s rationale for its ruling was. He replied to me: “Mr. Gardner, I do not know. How would you like to do some research and determine the answer to your own question yourself, and then report to the class what you found?” It was not a rhetorical question. I knew he meant it. I did not think he was trying to pressure me, let alone punish me for asking him a question to which he did not know the answer. I thought he was just being honest. I later realized that he was also being a wonderful role model for the professor I was going to become, but didn’t know that at the time—specifically, when a student were to ask me a question to which I did not know the answer, I would so indicate. Well, I accepted his invitation; did the research; determined the Court’s rationale; and made an oral presentation to my class on what I had learned. In my four years of undergraduate school, other than Speech 101 when I did have obligatory public speaking in class, this was the only presentation I was ever allowed to make in any course in any class. That’s right, one in four years. No wonder it really stood out in my mind and still does. I was nervous about doing this before my peers and my professor. But it went well. Professor Murdoch praised me publicly. And I soon realized that this one gesture on his part had truly given me a sense of empowerment and presence I had never experienced before.

On another occasion during college, I was studying in the Library and a professor I respected greatly walked by, stopped, and approached my study carrel and said: “Mr. Gardner, I just read your paper and it was truly excellent.” To have unsolicited praise like that from someone whom I knew was REALLY gifted intellectually (unlike me, a neophyte just beginning to learn how to be a college student) that pushed me on to a cloud nine and boosted my confidence and self-esteem.

Two weeks before I was to graduate, someone broke into my rental house and stole only my lecture notebooks, for all my courses. What a hostile act. I was in a small college and many of us students knew each other all too well. And I was known as a compulsive note taker for whom his lecture notes were a critical ingredient to his academic success. I was very active in campus politics and, obviously, had made an enemy. I went to one of my professors and asked for an incomplete for the term that would give me time to reconstruct my notes. He agreed and told me he would allow me to take a make-up, take home unproctored final exam—with the words: “Mr. Gardner, I trust you. I know you are a person of honor.” I have been trying to live up to that ever since. One by one my professors were writing the script of my adult life. I didn’t know it then. But I know it now.

How are you writing the script for your students? What are the succinct verbal, or written, messages are you sending them that they will remember for the rest of their lives, and that will shape the development of their character and self-concept profoundly?

Several months ago, my early forties son related to me his recent professional encounter with a woman in South Carolina with whom he talked about her experiences at the University of South Carolina. He asked her if she had taken University 101 as a first-year student. She said she did. Then he asked her who her professor was. She said she didn’t remember but she remembered things he said and taught her. As she shared an illustration of the professor’s advice to her my son realized that she had to be talking about his father, me. Apparently, the professor admonished the students at the end of the term in December not to make any major life decisions (such as to drop out of college or transfer, or get married or get divorced) as the end of first term of college, especially at holiday time was a very sentimental, often emotional period and not a good context for making rational decisions. She told him that she practices that advice to this very day, over 30 years later.

We have no idea what we say to our students that may really sink in at present time or later. We just have to believe that the messages we send them do matter and hence chose our words intentionally and affirmatively.

What Do You Give Your Students to Read—to Get Them to Discover What Matters Most?

Recently I was asked by one of my publishers to complete an author survey. And one of the questions was truly impossible for me to answer as requested. It read something to the effect “what was the book that has influenced you most significantly? What I found impossible was to choose one! I found the exercise interesting and worthwhile not only because of the sheer number of books that I would so classify as having been of “most significant influence”, but what those books were and especially what time of life was I exposed to these written ideas/experiences, and how this would help form my ideas on social justice.

So, they began coming to me almost as a crescendo.

There were two books in my first-year of college, when I was doing terribly on the academic front and was lonely, homesick lovesick. And they were mandated by one of my first-term professors to read and to be the subjects of an oral examination if I wanted to raise my final grade in Speech 101 from an F to a D. Most valuable D I ever received. He had me read David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1953), a book really for academics but one that sold well beyond that for laypeople. Riesman, a Harvard professor, lawyer and sociologist, one of the greatest of the 20th century, and also a scholar of the American college and university presidency. The Lonely Crowd was an argument that America produces two kinds of people: the Inner Directed Man and the Outer Directed Man (the direction being in reference to who and what are our influencers, inner vs outer oriented stimuli. My professor wanted me to examine that question for myself. What kind of person was I—was I becoming—or could become? Riesman analyzed a number of our culture’s favorite stories for children and he forced me to think about how I had been influenced by the stories I had read as a child. And nineteen years after being made to read his book, Riesman wrote me an unsolicited letter in 1980 raising some questions with me based on an article of mine he had read in the Journal of Higher Education, about one of my—and as it turns out—his favorite subjects. Riesman was also the founder of Harvard’s first-year seminar, in 1959, two years before I became a first-year student.

The other book was Escape from Freedom, by Erich Fromm, a German psychoanalyst, who escaped from the Third Reich and wrote a compelling analysis of why the German people, at the time the most literate of any of the European democracies, had voluntary given up their freedoms in 1933. The book was really about what for some of us is the burden of freedom, the challenge of making decisions on our own. And there I was, as the professor knew full well, a young man who had abused his freedom by overcutting this class, six times in fact. Why do some college students, for example, voluntarily decide to give up a number of their freedoms to join certain groups that make many of their decisions for them (such as with whom to associate), groups especially like fraternities and sororities? This book invited me to consider the uses, the choices, albeit the abuses, I was making with my freedom. And I concluded that I needed to reconsider some of those choices. And it was several years later, also while in college, that I read Fromm’s perennial best seller, The Art of Loving, which argues that before anyone can love anyone else, they have to be capable of self-love, meaning self-respect.

And then there was my reading of Plato’s Republic in the fall of my junior year, in a political philosophy class. We examined some of the most important questions that any society has to constantly be in the process of deciding: who should rule? Plato was having Socrates argue that philosophers should be kings. And the related question, that my whole adult life has been in pursuit of: what is justice? By then I was getting the idea that what was really happening to me in college is that I was learning that the questions can often be more important than the answers. To have a meaningful life you have to be asking and pursuing the right questions. In this same course, on the day of class that the professor was going to lead us through Plato’s argument about “who should rule” our class was interrupted by the shocking news of the assassination of President Kennedy on November 20th, 1963.

And then also that fall, in a course on Transcendental American writers, I was taking a very deep dive in the complete works of essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have never been the same since reading Self Reliance. Thank goodness. I was really ready to receive Emerson’s call to intellectual individualism. And I was so fortunate I had a professor who knew just how to do that so skillfully. I didn’t go to college expecting that I would come to love Emersonian prose but that’s exactly what happened. The course influenced me to do a research project to ascertain what might have been the influence on Emerson of New England Unitarianism. And I thought that to understand this question and possibility even more thoroughly I should try to grapple with it experientially. I did so be joining a small handful of other congregants who attended the weekly service of the Marietta, Ohio Unitarian Church. I learned that that faith was all about what my college experience had become: a search for the truth, my truths, which were being discovered by me through reading and interaction with the interpreters of those readings, my professors. What powers they had over me. And I allowed them to help me discover my own powers for discovery, and then to influence others.

In my junior year, I took an elective biology course in a course titled “Conservation.” We were required to reach Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring; the work that is generally credited with launching the now more than fifty-year-old “environmental” movement. Before this book, I had not given one thought to what I and my fellow men and women were doing to our environment. This work really changed me.

In my senior year, I read Joseph Heller’s first novel, Catch 22. Sadly, Heller was a one author great thinker. Try as hard as he did in a succession of following books, all of which I faithfully read, none of them did for me, let alone any of the critics, like what Catch 22 did. The first time I read Catch 22, I really didn’t get it, the “it” being the power of his satire of the insanity of bureaucratic life and thinking, as personified by Heller in the US Army of World War II. But two years later when I was on active duty in the US Air Force, and read Catch 22 again, then it hit me. He had finally showed me how bureaucracies work, often making some of their members literally crazy, by the non-rationality of some of their arbitrary rules and processes.

So, as I was recalling what I had read of greatest influence, and when I did that reading and thinking, that all these greatest influencers had come during undergraduate school. How could this be? This doesn’t mean I stopped reading upon graduating from college! Absolutely not. But I can’t think of anything that I have read since college that had the same level of formative influence on my most important understandings—of myself, my work, my culture, my role in society, human group and individual behavior—you name it. I can only conclude then that I was in a unique period of openness to new ideas, to being influenced, to self-discovery. But that openness had to be facilitated, nourished, encouraged, reinforced. And my professors and a few fellow students were the ones who did so. I was developmentally ready, hungry even. And the college experience was there for me, ready for me, able to develop me in only ways that it could. I am so thankful.

I have often asked my workshop audiences what they remember reading that had some influence during their first-year of college. Almost to a person, each group member can recall something specific. Maybe this is just because I work in the world of the academic bubble. These people liked being in college and so they have stayed in it for their adult lives. They truly were influenced. I know that once I experienced this influence I never wanted to leave it.

I have had much less success asking my students, particularly first-year students, what it is they read before college that has influenced them. They struggle with this, in part because no one has asked them this before.

In conclusion, I ask you: what were the great written works that influenced you? And what do you have your students read with the hope that this work and your guidance of them to and through it will be of significant influence? I know, it took me a long time here to get to my question. And the question for you should be much more important than the answers I have offered, just as has been the lasting impact of some of the questions I learned to ask in college, especially: what is justice? My whole adult professional life has been devoted to that question.


April 12, 2017Julie HellerInsights0


Recently I was privileged to be part of a five-person author team to both have a book published and to do a presentation on the main ideas of this book as a “featured session” at the annual meeting of the Higher Learning Commission, our nation’s largest regional higher education accreditor, in Chicago, on April 1, 2017. No joke. Not about April Fool’s Day.

The book is The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most; Peter Felten, John Gardner, Leo Lambert, Charles Schroeder, and Betsy Barefoot; Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Our leaders for this project, Peter Felten and Leo Lambert, Professor of History and President, respectively, of Elon University, prepared questions for each of us authors to speak to in this session. I want to share below one of the questions that was directed to me and the answer that I prepared in advance to offer.

If the same question were put to you, I wonder what your response would be about “The Big Disconnects.”

John, our book is filled with example after example of uplifting good practices across a wide spectrum of institutions.  We know what constitutes good practice.  And yet we know hundreds of institutions are beset with shockingly low graduation rates, very poor retention rates, and are revolving doors of failure.  You have been in this business for more than forty years.  What are the big disconnects in American higher education?


  1. Colleges not designed for students we now have.
  2. Faculty rewards system not designed to reward/motivate what majority of students need most—more focus on teaching and availability to students.
  3. Students preferred learning styles not in sync with ways majority of faculty teach.
  4. Focus on retention has led to focus on the margins: not the heart of the academic experience, gateway courses, where we have the greatest number of student failures.
  5. Faculty are viewed as source/cause of many problems rather than the solution.
  6. Our values are the big disconnect: we have adopted larger societal corporate values and more of our thinking is about making money than making—-Students—learn, grow, change, aspire, and lead.
  7. Many of us are looking for the panacea, the silver bullet. There aren’t any.
  8. We are often looking outside the academy to companies to sell us what they call “solutions” usually involving expensive technology.
  9. We need to focus on what matters most—what you think on your campus, your unit—is most likely to achieve your institutional mission: