For eight weeks each fall, groups of first-year students take part in a “how-to” course for life after high school. Known as Learning in Communities (LinC), the one-credit class through University College provides insights on how to thrive in college.
“LinC helps students navigate a new place, create networks, and understand the resources that can help them through their time at Illinois State,” said LinC Coordinator Lisa Lawless from her office in the Julia N. Visor Center. “Physically, the class gets students in the door of places like the Visor Center and the Career Center. But more than that, LinC encourages students to make connections and listen to one another to find answers.”
Nearly 5,500 students have taken part in LinC since its inception in 2005, and many of those are first-generation college students or are from groups that are underrepresented on campus. Each class of around 20 is paired with a LinC instructor pulled from faculty or staff, and a peer instructor—a student who is there to answer questions.
“Every class evolves differently, depending upon the needs of those taking it,” said Susan Woollen, director of undergraduate studies and enrollment management for Criminal Justice Sciences (CJS), who is in her third year of teaching a LinC course. “If you find a majority of your students are undecided in their majors, you might take more time on exploring career development. If you find students are more worried about time management, you concentrate on that.”
Most first-year students battle some degree of insecurity, and that can be compounded for students who are first-generation, or underrepresented in the classroom. “I worried about fitting in when I first came. I wanted to find a good group,” said Crystal Jones, a LinC peer instructor and junior biology major from Villa Park, Illinois. Jones was required to take LinC as a freshman to fulfill part of her University Scholarship. “At first it was just something I had to take. I decided it would just be an easy A,” she said with a laugh. “But the students in my LinC class and I hung out together outside of class, and left me thankful for the experience.” Jones became active in organizations on campus, began work at the front desk at Hewett-Manchester, and took a leadership role on the Quidditch Team.
Studies show that students who are engaged in activities and use campus resources are more likely to remain in school. Though underrepresented students tend to have a higher rate of leaving school after freshman year, Lawless noted LinC students have a 91 percent retention rate in returning for sophomore year at ISU. “It can be tough to juggle all that comes with being a first-year student,” she said. “LinC helps students understand the resources that are out there to help them.”
During the course, students take part in tours, and engage in activities from Festival ISU to the Human Library. “The key is to have students interact with others, on campus and in their LinC classroom,” said Jones. “There is also a lot of reflection on themselves—their goals and impressions.” Peer instructors like Jones serve a special purpose in LinC classrooms. “There are questions students are more willing to ask a peer instructor, because they know we are right there with them, going through the same things.”
The ultimate goal of LinC is to empower students to become the product of their college experiences at Illinois State, noted Woollen. “We want them to know the offices, the people, and the resources that help them achieve career goals—both in the ISU community and in the larger community,” she said.