‘Cultural Traditions’ course provides solid foundations for Honors College students’ success
Nervous only began to describe how Aliyah Jones felt as she began “Cultural Traditions” – an introductory course surveying cultural impact from their beginnings to present day – during her first semester in the Pierre Laclede Honors College at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
As a first-year nursing student and a “science and math person,” Jones had only experienced large, lecture-style classes in high school and felt hesitant about the small, discussion-based learning that typifies Honors College courses.
“I’m not one to really give my opinion out there,” she said. “I’m wanting to sit back and listen to what other people are saying. But I find that now that I’m in the class, I’m more willing to speak, seeing how people aren’t ridiculing you for getting your opinion out there.”
As she went through the first semester of “Cultural Traditions,” Jones was surprised by how much she enjoyed analyzing texts closely by breaking them down at the sentence level and preparing for class with journal notes. She even discovered that – though she’s still not a history person – that she enjoys noticing parallel trends among different cultures.
“Then, with the discussion-based courses, I’m actively participating, so I tend to remember the material more,” Jones said.
Her experience in “Cultural Traditions” demonstrates exactly why the Honors College requires all first-time students – approximately 80-100 each semester – take the class.
The two-semester survey course is the Honor College’s equivalent to the College of Arts and Sciences‘ First-Year Experience class. The class is intended to prepare students for their studies at UMSL and in the Honors College.
“It’s a course that helps them connect and succeed in their first semester and then helps them begin professional development in their second semester,” Associate Dean of the Honors College Kim Baldus said. “We do all of that, while introducing them to world cultures from the time of earliest ancient Mesopotamia up through the modern day.”
The Honors College has some specific goals with the course. First, it emphasizes broad cultural awareness and cultural inclusivity by examining works of philosophy and politics from different world cultures. Second, it builds community through shared experiences that help connect students to Honors, UMSL and St. Louis. Finally, it introduces students to service learning and community engagement.
Those goals mirror the Honors College core values: developing students as strong communicators, writers and researchers in an inclusive community that fosters academic and professional development.
“It creates a real kind of foundation,” Baldus said. “It gives them a vocabulary and a set of tools that we think are going to translate into helping them succeed in all their other classes.”
The “Cultural Traditions” course has been around, in its current form, for about 10 years. To create it, the Honors College took an existing world cultures seminar and added first-year experience components. In 2014, Honors added a robust peer mentorship program that’s become “Cultural Traditions” signature element.
There are five to eight peer mentors every semester who give presentations and lead discussions, meet with students individually, help with essays and are generally available to answer questions.
“We’re here for whatever else the students need,” said Alaina Dorsey, a senior sociology student and peer mentor. “We’re an extra support system. I think that the transition into college is really tough. I know it definitely was for me. Peer mentors, I think we’re a little less intimidating than professors.”
Jones looked to her peer mentor for help in class with essays and insights into class, as did first-year nursing student Garrett Boyce. In addition to the in-class presentations, he’d made sure to set up additional times to meet with her not only to discuss his work but also cover questions outside academics.
“She definitely helped,” Boyce said. “I would talk to her about my different personal goals. I know that one time I told her that I wanted to be an RA, and she kind of set me up with who to talk to about it.”
Dorsey served as a Living and Learning Community peer mentor stationed in Oak Hall. In addition to the standard duties, she planned programs in the residence hall and was a source of support and information for the students living there.
She’d applied for the position after some encouragement from her own mentor and has really enjoyed being a peer mentor and working with Baldus to enhance her skill set.
“It’s been a really good experience,” said Dorsey, thinking back to her first semester in the job and hearing thank yous from the students whom she’d helped and pushed to achieve. “Mentors also benefit from mentoring. I am a completely different person than I was before I started mentoring two years ago. It has increased my confidence and my leadership abilities. It has forced me to become a lot better at time management and public speaking.”
That’s part of the point, notes Baldus. The peer mentors often go on to become not only academic and community leaders in Honors but also heavily involved across campus. That’s true of Dorsey, who is now assistant resident director of engagement for Mansion Hill and Oak Hall and works with the RAs to put on programs and engagement for residents.
The “Cultural Traditions” students gained some unexpected benefits as well. Learning how to speak up in the discussion setting has built invaluable communication skills that Jones anticipates using as a nurse.
“It taught me about different cultures around the world, but it also taught me about the foundations of different societies,” Boyce said. “I was taking ‘Cultural Traditions’ alongside the ‘Cultural Diversity in Nursing’ class. Those came together and showed me a bunch of different cultures around the world and how their beliefs can affect the ways that they look at the world. So, that ended up helping me with my career, in more ways than I thought it would.”
Both feel that the class has helped them mesh into the Honors College, and they’ve made friends by extending discussions that had begun in class.
That’s in addition to the emphasis on inclusivity and encouragement to participate Honors-specific community events, such as a civil rights speaker series and professional development alumni reception, that are built into “Cultural Traditions.”
“This is a course that does a bunch of different things,” Baldus said. “But at its core, it helps our students feel connected, supported, and understand and think about why they’re doing what they’re doing in the Honors College and at the university. Hopefully, it gives them some ways to keep growing and expand on those as they continue on.”
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