CORVALLIS, Ore. - Harry Potter's first day at Hogwarts was exciting, confusing and a little bit scary - emotions that are not all that different than those experienced by many new college students nationwide.
At Oregon State University, however, freshmen have an opportunity to take special courses designed to help them get oriented to campus - using themes that include pop culture and social media. These "U-Engage" courses fill up fast. They are taught by a variety of administrators and faculty members, and include such themes as "Is Facebook a Noun or a Verb?" and "Exploring the Biology of Pandora."
While the courses may have a catchy slant, they include important information, including practicing critical analysis, identifying campus resources, developing a sense of belonging and contributing to a diverse community - skills that will help them deal with future college courses and life on campus.
OSU Dean of Students Mamta Accapadi, a fervent Harry Potter fan, identifies strongly with the plucky, fiercely intellectual yet socially ostracized Hermione Granger. Accapadi is stepping into a teaching role this fall when she leads a special freshmen-only course called "Finding Your Patronus." For Accapadi, the medium of Harry Potter is perfect for teaching students how to deal with a range of professorial personalities.
"You may even encounter a (Severus) Snape on campus," she said - a reference to a classroom tyrant in the Harry Potter films.
"I'm hoping that I have a lot of Harry Potter fans in the room, so that everyone will start out having something in common," Accapadi said. "I feel like that will minimize barriers and the class will gel way more quickly."
Kris Winter, director of New Student Programs and Family Outreach at OSU, said they've asked the faculty and administrators teaching the courses to come up with themes that are in their area of interest.
"They focus on something they love and want to explore further," Winter said. "It's not every term you're asked 'What do you want to teach?'"
The classes may range in topic, but they all include a capstone assignment, reflecting writing and a fireside chat with various administrators to lessen the distance between incoming students and top level administrators.
Not all of the instructors are professors. Many, like Accapadi, have some teaching experience but have a different professional focus. U-Engage instructors have plenty of support as they prepare for their fall courses, including syllabus workshops and brown bag training sessions.
Laurie Bridges, for example, is the business and economics librarian with OSU libraries. She is taking part in the U-Engage program because it allows her to teach a subject she's passionate about, social media. Bridges' course, "A Life Lived Online: Social Media" will look at how communities are being created online, and how students interact with the digital world.
"As a librarian I know that the information landscape is drastically changing," Bridges said. She's going to be looking at how social media tools like Twitter and Facebook are altering how society is functioning, and how it might shape the future of careers and family.
No matter if students are exploring the complexities of Facebook or deciding that their leadership style is more Hufflepuff than Slytherin, they'll hopefully emerge from fall term with a better sense of what it means to be a college student, and maybe, how to face those Snapes of the world with a little more courage.
For a full list of U-Engage courses, see http://oregonstate.edu/newstudents/u-engage/index.php.
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Kris Winter, 541-737-0582