First Year Experience
“We want our students to experience shalom – a thoroughgoing, God-drenched thriving – during their time here.”
~ Dr. John Cunningham, Director, First Year Experience at Providence
About the FYE Program
The transition to college is a major life change, and while it is a joyful one for most students— a truly exhilarating time, full of new friends, new freedoms, and new opportunities—it’s also a time of stress and challenge. The freshman year is a time away from the direct support of family and friends, and adjustment to the social and academic stressors can be significant.
Study after study reveals that college students are more stressed-out than at any time in history. Nationally, many students say they were already stressed—from high school, the college admissions process, finances, and personal problems—before they even arrived at college.
Furthermore, many incoming students feel personally unable to handle the difficulties of life. As the New York Times reported a few years ago, “The emotional health of college freshmen . . . has declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago”.
Another study found that “more than 28 percent said they frequently felt overwhelmed”. Yet another national study found that 42 percent of college students often feel “down, depressed or hopeless”.
Dr. John Cunningham, Director of the First Year Experience at Providence Christian College has developed a program to not only support our freshmen students but help them thrive in their new college experience.
“Don’t get me wrong; I find Providence students to be remarkable young men and women, gifted and full of promise. However, my experience with first year students bears out the national trends. More students visit me in office hours for personal issues than they do for academic ones,” explained Dr. Cunningham.
“Anxiety, depression, and social struggles top the list of what students want to talk about. While I am glad and honored that they do, this says to me that we at Providence Christian College must tend to the social, spiritual, and emotional needs of our students if we are to be successful in our mission.”
According to Dr. Cunningham, this is not all we want to help incoming students with, however. Those who are admitted to Providence are bright and capable, but the level of academic challenge and expectation—especially at a rigorous school like ours—is a big step up from high school.
Students must attain a much higher level of critical thinking, careful reading, and the ability to communicate effectively—both verbally and in writing. While some colleges a generation or so ago chose the sink-or-swim approach to this time of adjustment, we want to give students a leg up to the collegiate level of academic performance.
We are finding, then, that many entering freshmen need help in two areas: life skills (e.g., resilience, emotional health, self- knowledge, and social and relational skills) and academic skills, including productivity practices and time management. These needs are what the First Year Experience is designed to address.
The Aim of the FYE: Holistic Flourishing at Providence
Our hope and aim is that students not only “survive” college and earn their degree,
but that they thrive and grow during their time here.
Our model being Jesus, who “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52), we seek to help our new students prosper academically (in wisdom), physically (in stature), spiritually (in favor with God), and socially (in favor with man). In other words, we have devised this program to address the holistic needs of our incoming students.
The FYE In the Classroom
The holistic strategy of our First Year Experience for serving our freshmen consists of experience both in the classroom and outside of it. In all we do, we seek to promote a deeper learning for greater wisdom.
Inside the classroom we seek to coordinate and promote integrated learning objectives (such as instruction in effective academic writing) across all first year (100-level) courses. Two courses, however, directly advance the aims of the FYE: First Year Seminar and the Christian Mind.
In the fall semester, the First Year Seminar (FYS) introduces the concept of calling to first year students and helps orient them to their calling as students. FYS is designed to help initiate students into a rigorous academic learning community and to inculcate the values of a Christian liberal arts education.
In addition to strengthening some of the college- level academic skills mentioned above, this course also emphasizes particular life skills and character virtues necessary to flourish both at Providence Christian College and in life.
Special attention is paid to the findings of current research and established theology in the areas of relational and social skills, emotional regulation, stress management, and especially resilience.
We stress that God has given each student a particular calling to bring God’s goodness and reign into the world. In other words, we stress that their lives matter. We also stress, however, that living out one’s calling in a fallen and broken world requires resilience to overcome the difficulties, trouble, and setbacks with which we all must deal.
One assignment stands out to me. Each student gives a “hero presentation” in which they tell about someone they admire who overcame significant adversity in his or her life. While this assignment teaches skills such as public speaking and integrating research findings about resilience, it has also proved to be truly inspirational. More than once my eyes have brimmed with tears listening to a student talk about someone (often a family member) who overcame great odds to contribute good to the world.
In the second semester of the first year, new students take a course called The Christian Mind. This course, taught by Dr. Ryan McIlhenny, introduces students to rich categories of thought that mark the uniqueness of a Providence education. Students learn to think from a Christian worldview, drawing particularly from the weighty Reformed tradition. They learn to assess life and culture through the Biblical lens of creation, fall, and redemption. Furthermore, they learn to do this in a liberal arts context that teaches them to seek to draw on the breadth and depth of Western culture. More than one student has told me that “this class gave me the tools to think.”
The FYE Oustide the Classroom
Of course, the college experience is so much more than academics. I work closely with our residence life team to ensure that our new students integrate and assimilate well into the Providence community. From Embark (our initial new student orientation at a beautiful mountain retreat facility) to ongoing social activities and other residence life programs developed especially for new students, as well as special “Faculty & Freshmen Forums” (opportunities to meet with professors in an informal setting), we hope to welcome and serve our new students throughout their first year at Providence.
In addition, all students participate in FYE Peer Mentoring Small Groups led by Providence upperclassmen and overseen by academic affairs. These groups allow students to process and integrate their first year experience in a safe, small setting. It also enables new students to get to know seven to nine other freshmen quickly in a structured environment. Our hope is that these groups not only foster learning at a deeper level, but also engender many lasting friendships.
Our Commitment to New Students
We at Providence view our role in the formation of our students as a sacred charge. We want our students to experience shalom—a thoroughgoing, God-drenched thriving—during their time here. We believe that this all-encompassing intellectual, spiritual, and social flourishing is the aim of a Christian liberal arts education. It is our aspiration and prayer that the First Year Experience will serve that end for new students, enabling them to prosper throughout their time at Providence Christian College and beyond.
About Dr. Cunningham
Dr. John Cunningham is the director of the First Year Experience at Providence Christian College. Prior to working at Providence, he spent many years as a pastor and counselor and also worked for Fortune 500 companies. He has a B.F.A. in art from Bowling Green State University, an M.A in biblical counseling from Colorado Christian University, an M.A.R. in philosophical theology and philosophy of religion from Yale University, and a Ph.D. in theology, ethics, and culture from the University of Virginia.
As Director of the First Year Experience, Dr. Cunningham is passionate about students flourishing in college by opening themselves to the wonder and delight of the life of the mind and preparing themselves to live out their callings. In addition to his work at Providence, Dr. Cunningham enjoys art, making sculpture and ceramics, watching films, riding his motorcycle, and hanging out with friends. John is married to Susan, a gifted poet and counselor. They have two delightful children, Evan and Elisabeth, and a golden retriever, Bono.