John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Thirtieth Anniversary Coming Up Soon: What’s Your Big Idea?

Anyone can have a big idea. In our Institute, we have a saying: “If John can do it, anyone can.” So here is the story of my biggest idea. I challenge you to top this in your career.

It was 1981 and I had just been promoted to full professor at the University of South Carolina. I was 36 and the youngest full professor at the University. It was now time to decide what I was going to do when I grew up. Problem: I was still the undecided student I was in college!

This was the same year I got the seven year itch. This was because I had been serving as the faculty director of the University 101 first-year seminar for seven years. I really loved the job. The course was having a tremendously positive impact on our students. Those first-year students who took the course, when compared to like qualified students who didn’t take the course were more likely to: return as sophomores, graduate, seek assistance, join co-curricular organizations and activities, interact with faculty outside of class, attend plays, concerts and lectures, and engage in more responsible health related behaviors connected to sexual decision making. What more could I ask for?

Well, I did want more. I wanted to know more about what other colleges and universities were doing in such courses, many of them developed as replications of our University 101. I wanted to be able to interact with a national peer group of faculty like myself, who had gotten engaged beyond their disciplines in the broader work of what we now call “student success”. How could I make these connections? How could I learn more from other such higher educators?

This was a problem, a challenge. But I knew they were out there. But there was no meeting to convene us. And there was no literature base. There was not yet an established field of study of “first-year experience”. Now, of course, there are convenings. There is a literature base. This has become an established field of professional endeavor.

So what was I to do? Continue as first-year seminar director? Or move on to other challenges. Before making that decision, I decided to see what I could do to further develop myself professionally in this work of directing first-year seminars. How could I do this when there were no associations of peers, conferences, or literature? I decided to organize a conference.

What qualifications did I have as a professional conference planner? Absolutely none. But I didn’t let that stop me. With the help of my competent and risk taking administrative assistant, Vicky Howell and a former student of mine, a hotel management major who was the sales manager of a local Holiday Inn, we set out to plan a national conference, the 30th anniversary of which we are celebrating in Atlanta on February 4-8, 2011, now known as “The Conference on The First-Year Experience.”

This was one of those “bottled water” or “roller bag” moments. Haven’t you ever asked yourself “Why didn’t I think of that?” You think of something you need and that others need to and would probably support if somebody invented a useful response to that need. There was a need for convening higher educators who wanted to improve the success of new students. There was no such forum. Why hadn’t anyone thought of this and then done it? I don’t know.

So I decided to organize such a forum. But this was to be of limited focus, confined to faculty, academic and student affairs administrators who wanted to either launch or improve existing first-year seminars. We called this by a name that was certainly not memorable: “A National Conference on the Freshman Seminar/Freshman Orientation Course Concept.” So much for brevity in our marketing.

What would draw people to such a first conference? Well, if nothing else, if we held it in beautiful Columbia, South Carolina, the home of the University of South Carolina in the dead of a Yankee winter, February 1982, maybe they would come down and see if we wore shoes in the winter, and play golf. My goal was 50 people. I figured if I could learn from them, others would too.

Well, low and behold, even to my ever optimistic way of thinking, I was overwhelmed by the response. Instead of 50, we had 173 higher educators, and not only from the US, but Canada too. At the end of the conference we held a closing session entitled “where do we go from here?” And the message I got was: do another conference, but take a broader look at the entirety of the beginning college experience and what institutions were doing to improve that experience, not just first-year seminars. And come up with a new name for the meeting, something shorter, something memorable.

And that was how the series of Conferences on The First-Year Experience were born. We decided to definitely do a second meeting, in February 2003, and to call it something totally different: “The Freshman Year Experience.” And when we did that, our attendance doubled to 351.

And now 30 years later we will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of what became a series and an international movement in which many many thousands have come to such convenings, no matter what the strength of the economy. I often wonder why someone else hadn’t done this before me. I have no idea.

You too have big ideas. You see needs that aren’t being met. Now all you have to do is act on your own vision. I am so gratified I acted on mine.

-John Gardner





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