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St. Lawrence University
Students at St. Lawrence University explore the terrain. Credit: St. Lawrence University/Tara Freeman

I watched my students wade hundreds of yards into the St. Lawrence River to the site of one of the famous “lost villages” that had been flooded out by the St. Lawrence Seaway. As they pondered the former foundations of buildings, still visible beneath the water, a freighter passed through the famous Eisenhower Lock.

It was the students’ first month of college and they were participating in a class called “Creating the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project” that I had joined with an environmental historian to teach. Reading, writing assignments, presentations and discussions covered history, cultural difference, environmental manipulation and what was technically possible.

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Just as the St. Lawrence Seaway remade our region, a liberal arts education is transformational to a  student’s intellect. And the confluence of language, history and economics on the Seaway provided an ideal – not to mention local – lens through which to view the liberal arts.

“The confluence of language, history and economics on the Seaway provided an ideal – not to mention local – lens through which to view the liberal arts.”

Everywhere we looked, we saw questions of values: The wisdom of environmental engineering toward human wants, the need for electrical power in a northern climate, the mutual desires of each country. These are questions of a sort every thinking person confronts every day. My students were starting to figure things out, using their critical thinking skills. First discovering what was done to build the project, to reshape the river, they then asked and debated questions like Why was this done? How did they do it? Are we really better off now?

At the same time, the students learned why Canadians wanted the project and they came to understand the ever-present frictions in the intimate Canada-U.S. bilateral relationship.

The St. Lawrence Seaway class is one of a series of first-year colleges that St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York requires of freshmen. Each student selects a college by its topic, lives with about thirty other students taking the same course, and is advised for the first two years by one of her or his first-year program professors. During the second semester of the program, each student takes a seminar structured around a major research project, sometimes with one of the same professors, sometimes not.

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First-year programs are in wide use in American colleges and universities because they can can lead the way in higher education by engaging first-year students academically and socially from the moment they set foot on campus. St. Lawrence was one of the earliest adopters and its program is quite extensive.

An intensive living and learning experience is the best approach to developing lifelong learners, and so I find the discussion surrounding the value of the liberal arts today ironic and mostly dissonant.

Certainly, vocations matter, independent schools are expensive, and student debt is high. And some students don’t seem to do much with their liberal arts degrees. But I have seen our students soar with motivation, transform self-doubt into confidence and flourish intellectually. This process begins in our first-year programs.

Our first-year programs examine fundamental human questions; promote collaborative learning; and develop reading, writing, speaking and research skills. What’s fun is that we place new people together in new places to discover new ideas with different expectations.

Another first year program, “Becoming Canadian, Becoming American,” which I taught with a Canadian colleague originally from Angola, set our students to discovering their own geneology. Using and whatever other sources they had, our students discovered their family’s beginnings as Americans or Canadians. As part of the course we took them to Grosse Isle — Canada’s Ellis Island — a place used to receive immigrants beginning in the 1830s just down the St. Lawrence from Quebec City. Thousands of Irish who fled the potato famine are buried there, dead of cholera. Through their own research, many of our students discovered similar stories in their own families. This was true discovery, a new understanding.

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If this kind of learning, or some variation on it, isn’t happening every day on campus, then I don’t see the point. And, to be blunt, there’s no better preparation for any vocation.

In stark and vivid ways, such courses  exemplify just what the first-year program does and just why it is such a powerful, transforming educational experience for 18-year-olds. We really do get them to see things differently, more complexly, with nuances intact.

Newly arrived in a new place, thrown in with a seemingly random batch of peers, directed by persistent but humane professors who demand more than any teacher ever has, each student has to find her way into knowledge, into what happened, into understanding, into the liberal arts.

High school is over: it’s time to get serious about discovering her own way. Just four years: shaking them hard, the first-year program gets them going.

Robert Thacker is Charles A. Dana Professor of Canadian Studies and English at St. Lawrence University. From 2006-12 he was its first Associate Dean for Academic Advising Programs.

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