Nathan’s My Freshman Year Ch. 1-5 [Jessica]

My Freshman Year (the first half)


A cultural anthropologist – professor at a university, female, in her 50s – realized that she no longer understood the students entering her university. Her formative theory base was to focus on the student population at her university. She did not wish, however, to conduct a study from the professor-student perspective. After much consideration and discussion with colleagues she enrolled at her university as an incoming first-time-freshmen (FTF) student.

She debated about the ethical situations she would face in undertaking such a study. Here are a few of the issues she mentions: Can an anthropologist legitimately go “undercover”? How to deal with the Institutional Research Board? Would she be discovered? In terms of methodology: Would she be able to record her personal experiences or anything that was said to her for the findings since she did not disclose her identity.   

Ch. 1 – Welcome to “Any U”

Rebekah Nathan, pseudonym, had spent most of her professional life living oversees studying a remote village studying a culture foreign to her. After more than 15 years of university teaching, students had become increasing confusing to her. She questioned why students never stopped by to see her during office hours; how students used class time to eat full meals; many did not take notes during lectures; students took naps during class.

She audited two courses and saw how by simply “acting” like a student gave her an in with students. They no longer addressed her in the same manner as would be the case of the students knew she was a professor auditing a class.

She mentions the work of Michael Moffatt, who conducted research at Rutgers University between 1977 and 1987 and wrote an ethnography about the experience. Rebekah hoped to bring a new light to this topic which included a woman’s point-of-view.

She applied for admission in the spring of 2002. After being admitted, she received – as all freshmen did – and invitation to attend a two-day Preview session, an orientation to college.

How I Would Represent Myself

This was a great issue to consider. She discussed this issue with friends and colleagues to determine the best way to handle this. Scenario exploration, role-playing, and discussions were conducted. She would have to misrepresent the truth of who she is in order to conduct this study.

Enter the Abyss

In June 2002, she attended the Previews. Rebekah took great care in getting ready believing that her clothing would support her persona. She was wrong; she soon discovered that she was dressed like the parents of the incoming freshmen. She was mistaken for a parent when checking-in.

Rebekah discovered the many activities and situations that a student encounters. Even though she worked at this university, where she was now pretending to be a FTF student, she did not know what the orientation day content consisted of and was surprised by some of the sessions.

Welcome Week: Life in Anther Culture

She moved into the dorm on a Saturday in August. She participated in many of the Welcome Week activities. She discusses her familiarity of the campus and compares that to her student point-of-view. She felt lost and a bit “clueless” culminating in an experience for her. Rebekah, over 21 years of age, decided to indulge in an alcoholic beverage in a common area and got busted.  She realized that she was out of touch with the current lingo. Rebekah figured that since she was proving to be an outgoing personality that she was being accepted into the culture as any freshmen student would be.

During her one year study, she was able to conduct 40 interviews, two focus groups, and several “mini-studies.”

She was a participant-observer – while in an activity, she was not able to write many of the field notes.

Ch. 2 Life in the Dorms

Rebekah notes that the dorms were built in the 1940s. Two people commonly shared a small space. The kitchen, bathroom, and lounge areas were communal style living arrangements. She noted the crowing in the bathroom early in the morning as everyone was trying to get ready to attend class. She kept careful records of the formal bulletin board displays, the pictures, the Resident Assistant’s door displays, and of how the outside door to a dorm room changed. Rebekah noted that some student doors were decorated elaborately while others more simply.

Individuality and Freedom of Choice were constant these observed by Rebekah.

The Absolutely Positively Mandatory First Hall Meeting

Not all residents showed up for the meeting. Rebekah listened to the rules, spoken and unspoken, about dorm life.

School Days

She noted the difference between the weeks before classes and compared it to the routine of class attendance. Her hall mates were like “ships that passed in the night.” Rebekah was overwhelmed at first – 15 unit course load. She noted statistics relevant to student study time. Rebekah noted that compared to Moffatt’s study, many students spent their hours outside of class and study time holding down a job and/or volunteering for community service.

She noted that scheduled activities were different for different students. Her summation is that it is hard to create a community when the sheer number of options in college life generates a system in which no one is in the same place at the same time.

Rebekah feels that there are two implications due to this issue:

  1. There is little that is shared between students by virtue of attending the same university. It takes forethought and effort to overlap with others or to build a social circle.
  2. Despite the emphasis on community, there is no true opportunity to build it; it becomes both elusive and unreliable.

Rebekah gives the example that when she returned to the dorms after completing the study; she could not find one person she recognized in her old corridor.

She discusses her findings on students changing majors and students changing organizations or club memberships.

Ch. 3 Community and Diversity

She begins this chapter by describing one of the sessions she attended which took the students through their shared history.

How Community Works at AnyU

Rebekah noted that there is a Freshmen Colloquium that is required of FTF. She wrote that the faculty had an ambitious and, what they thought exciting, agenda. These faculty required readings over the summer. The author was invited to speak to the students and it was hoped that since all the FTF were required to read the book that this would be a great basis for discussion.  For the administration, it was another way to foster community building and contribute to retention. She acknowledges that she was one of the last to take the course; it was nullified by the university because it did not work as hoped.

The question: How can we give students a sense of community?

Required common experiences are not popular. Rebekah again noted effort the university representatives took to attempt to engage the students. This included many notices inviting students to partake in activities. One example was that of her RA. The RA sent out a survey to determine what the residents wanted. The responses determined that a movie night was something that was wanted. The RA held a movie night, but only two people showed the first week and nobody showed the following time.

The American Way: The Individualism in Community

Fewer than 10% of AnyU residents are members of fraternities and sororities. She found profound ambivalence about community life.

She highlights the trends in dormitory living – higher in amenities and lower in density, no communal bathrooms, lounge, or washing machine. We want our privacy!

Rebekah shared the example of the well-publicized Super bowl. The RA’s were going to provide snacks. She showed up early to get a good seat. Very few students showed up. While walking her corridor she noticed that students were watching the game with their group of friends in their crowded rooms.

AnyU’s Read Community: The Ego-Centered Network

The interviewees felt they had a strong sense of community. Their meaning, however, was not what she expected. They had small, ego-centered groups which were the backbone of most college students’ social experience.

She explained the type of small friend groupings in great detail. Rebekah found that student networks have less to do with personality than with shared circumstances and shared demographics. Most students that come to AnyU have already formed relationships or expectations of who they will friend. She surmised that despite the belief that college expands our social horizons and extends our experiences to include new and different types of people, the findings suggest otherwise.

Students experienced contacts with the same people.

Diversity at AnyU

About 22 – 25% of the student population at AnyU are considered “minority” by federal standards. Students shared with Rebekah that they had experienced racism. Stories consisted of rude remarks on the street, hostile looks or comments made in class.


Who Eats with Whom: A Study of Student Dining

Only about 1% of white males ate with males of a different ethnicity. The number increased to about 6% when women were present.

Ch. 4 – As Others See Us

Rebekah, being an outsider herself, focuses on the International Student population at AnyU.

Getting to Know “American” Students

Interviewees tell their stories complete with expectations and reality that they faced when interacting with American students.

There were common themes here: American students are artificial in their friendliness.

Relationships and Friendships

One student shared a story; the roommate comes out looking hostile and inconsiderate. Another shared that he was plainly told that he was a roommate, nothing more. But yet another was relieved that there were no obligations of courtesy or friendship in this scenario.

Again, it was noted that students here were extremely independent. Some students were shocked that American students did not interact more with parents and family.

Classroom Life

International Students were shocked with our pajama wearing population. The lack of formality, eating, leaving, and interrupting (asking questions) stood out to these students.

They were also surprised by the professors. The students felt that the professors here were more laid back than in their respective countries. One student likened teaching in America to a one-man show. The goal of entertainment to retain students’ attention was a new experience. Again, the impression of the ability to choose and catering to the feelings and needs of the American student was mentioned.

Worldliness and Worldview

There was great comment on the ignorance of the American student population in regards to a place other than the U.S. The International Students were amazed at the ethnocentric tendencies that were exhibited by the American student population. The best question, in my opinion, was: “Is Japan in China?” There were others. A student shared that the manner in which he ate his noodles (loudly) as was the custom in his country garnered him dirty looks from another student.

Ch. 5 – Academically Speaking

Rebekah had often used an exercise in her class. It was a witch hunt – Identify the witch. She stated that invariably, the witches were always those students that paid attention, took notes, asked questions, etc.

Conventions of the Classroom


She asked her interviewees why there was no participation in class discussion. She lists many of their statements including, “Opinions are personal. I don’t feel everyone needs to know my business.”

Dorm Talk

She realized that she needed to find a different way to get answers. She would write talking points and place them in women’s bathrooms and hoped to get anonymous comments.

What You Really Learn in College

Learning is not only happening in the classroom. Some students admitted that classes and school work were a minor part of what they were learning. She polled students about how much (percentage) of their learning came from classes. The median response was that 65% of learning occurs outside of class and class-related activities. If students don’t come to school to learn, why are they there? She followed up by asking if given the chance, would they take their degree and run.

Thirty-eight women responded anonymously. Eleven said they would pay for their degree and leave citing reasons such as, “I want to start my life.” Two-thirds of the sample would choose to stay in college and finish their degrees the old-fashioned way.


  1. Share your college experience.
  2. Does the individualistic nature apply to you? Do you feel that this is an issue for our college students?
  3. If you were teaching undergrads, would you consider the ability to act as a one-man show a necessity in order to keep students engaged? What would you do if there was no participation during your lectures?
  4. Is anyone surprised by her findings? If yes, please elaborate.

13 thoughts on “Nathan’s My Freshman Year Ch. 1-5 [Jessica]

  1. Since I did not begin college until I was 25, I did not really have a typical college experience. I am very individualistic as that type of thinking has been engrained in me since I was a youngster. I find it interesting in my own parenting I often tell my son to “be a man” “do it yourself” and have taught my daughters to be self-sufficient individuals. It’s just who we are. I think many of us do this without even thinking about it. Do I think this is a problem for college students? It might be for some, but again, I just think it is who we are as a people. I do not think it is necessary to be a one-man show to keep students engaged, in fact, what I have found is that when I try to do that, it normally works for about 15 minutes, then the glossy eyes appear! I think the traditional lecture modality should be a small part of how content is delivered. When there is no participation in my lessons, I will change direction and get the students involved. I have been known to change direction mid-stream if something is not working. I will often tell my students “this is not working! We are going to do something else!” When I first started teaching I thought that every lesson must be perfect and precise! Now I realize that sometimes my plan just doesn’t work out. Flexibility in the classroom is very important to me! That’s why I probably wouldn’t make it in a setting where everything is precisely scripted! Thanks for the interesting summary Jessica. I enjoyed it.

  2. Although I began taking college classes as a senior in high school, my college experience was very individualistic. My focus was to complete my classes and graduate so I could be successful on my own. Based on my experience, I feel that many freshman and sophomore undergraduate students are split into two types of college students: those that come just to study and those that come to have fun. I did not see the merging of these viewpoints until students became juniors and seniors. I think that this could be an issue for our college students. Although I agree that some individuals approach college through an individualistic nature (such as myself), I wonder if the individualistic nature mindset has any impact on student success at college.

    My experience with teaching undergraduates is that it is not necessary for the instructor to act as a one-man show in order to keep students engaged. However, more effort has to be made on the part of the instructor to engage students in the learning. This can often be done through class discussions, relating the material to the students, and in class small collaborative projects.

  3. I was primarily schooled in a private, small school environment. In some cases, my school experiences were individual. But, more often than because I was in small schools and classes were small the activities, assignments, and discussions were quite collaborative. Having these experiences in small venues was quite beneficial. I feel that it is beneficial to have an individualistic approach to school, but it can be costly. It is important in organizations to be collaborative, to invite perspectives, and to develop teams. My current job and world is about building effective teams and achieving goals collaboratively. Again, it is important to not diminish the role of the individual working independently, but in many cases it is about what you can bring back to the team.

    Because my experiences were diverse in school I find that this is an effective approach to teaching at any level. A “one-man show” is not an effective approach. I equate a one-man show model to direct instruction and there is only one direction information is flowing, from teacher to student. With some information and aspects of teaching it is important to use this approach, but to teach students how to be effective members of organizations and society as a whole it is important to utilize many approaches. I find in my adult life, people tend to want to work independently, as opposed to working in groups or teams. I find this to be a weakness. Let’s face it, it is more work on the teacher and the leader of an organization to develop teams and collaboratively work together. But, the genuine hard work will pay off in the end.

    • I find it interesting that you were primarily schooled in a private, small school environment where the activities, assignments, and discussions were quite collaborative. Did these experiences also have any elements of an individualistic approach?
      Do you lead your school through more of a collaborative approach? I would think that it would be essential to do so since you are the principal of a charter school.
      Although I was raised in a very individualistic schooling system, I do feel that both elements are essential for reaching all learners. In my classroom the majority of the class activities, assignments, discussions, and projects are collaborative with supervision.

  4. Great summary and post!

    I went to school in Milwaukee, WI and, unlike many of my peers at the time, I commuted during my freshman year at Marquette University. In that sense, I’d have to say I had a very individualized college experience. Instead of arriving in pajamas, I’d be in business casual because I had a job down the street. Instead of staying up late in the dorms and complaining about the food, many times I was home with family and friends from high school. I think it is interesting to note that, much like the international student population Jessica mentions, I could identify many of the differences between myself and many of my peers.

    However, I moved into an on-campus apartment for my sophomore, junior, and senior years of college and realized that I understood why someone would go to class in pajamas…because they could. I can’t say that I changed much, but I had the same realization that the author did. In fact, with that understanding, I more smoothly transitioned between my two roles and multiple “communities” because I had my Milwaukee/high school friends and coworkers as well as my newer, college peers. It was an excellent experience.

    I wouldn’t say that I was surprised by anything she experienced, but I would say that I bet it made her a better teacher. I’m not sure how much was touched on in that area (as of yet), but I think understanding a population is a giant leap towards better teaching and learning between the two parties.

    • Andrew- If you had it to do over do you think it would have changed your college experience had you moved into campus housing freshman year? I’m curous because I have a son. my third to go to college, but the first planning to go away freshman year and I just wonder what your perspective is?

  5. I agree that understanding the student population leads to better teaching and improved learning. Too often, while at the community college, I heard things that bordered on the ridiculous specifically from faculty teaching students in remedial courses. I figure that when one person agrees to teach a “How to write a paragraph” course – the anecdotal title to the first English course in the remediation sequence – it would be expected that these students do not know how to write a 10-page paper. Badgering and abusive name calling are not exactly motivators; the students in these courses varied in age, some had been out of school for decades while others had recently graduated from the local area high schools. Maybe getting to know the students and the reasons why they found themselves in such a basic course would improve results.

  6. I wasn’t too surprised with Nathan’s results.

    When I started at CSUB I made it my mission to be as involved as I possibly could. I always took more than 15 units, often held more than one job–the majority were on-campus jobs, and also did research in the chemistry department. I also worked for the school newspaper, was president of a STEM club, performed in the school plays and musicals, and was part of ASI. All of this said I had the opportunity to have a really great and involved college experience. However, I did notice that was not the case for the majority of the students. I noticed that the majority of students came to take their courses, were not always focus or engaged, and left the campus. Just as Nathan said, it is difficult to build a culture when not all of the members are in the same place. I guess I am trying to say that to me it seemed like their was a lack of a college culture for the majority of the students who just commuted to campus to take their courses and then left to go home or go to work.

    As part of ASI we tried to create events during different parts of the day to keep the students on campus, involved, and motivated academically and socially. However, this was a difficult thing to do because of the students’ need to hold a job off campus or other family related circumstances.

    • I agree that the lack of student involvement could be a result of a lack of college culture. Some campuses have a strong school culture while others do not. I was able to observe and participate in such experiences with my friends that attended other colleges. What steps do you feel that college campuses could use to promote and achieve strong a strong school culture?

    • Gabriel,
      You mention that as part of ASI you were able to see first-hand how difficult it is to actually get students to participate in activities because of their need for off-campus jobs or family related circumstances. Looking back on that experience, what do you feel would have been a turning point for students? What programs, activities, opportunities???

      I was a disengaged student. There were so many issues that I had to deal with process-wise from the onset that I felt no love for the campus. The times I did participate in any activity had more to do with my friends asking/begging me to help them. I did it for them, because I cared about them, not for me. Did I benefit? Sure, but inside I was kicking and screaming. There was no advisor/mentor that I could turn to and as such made my own way looking for critical advice from friends who, sadly, were in the exact situation as I. This is one of the key realities that drives my passion for assisting students. To this day, I do not have fond memories of this setting and I try to use that experience to change a current student’s outlook on the whole university experience at CSUB. Any suggestions are welcome!

  7. 1. For most of my undergraduate education I was an athlete, and like Rebekah found in her research, I socialized mainly with students very much like myself -other athletes, because these were the people I encountered and related to the most. However, my experiences in graduate school and in the work force were much different, as I was drawn to the “different and unique” thinker- the people that had an authenticity to them. Even now, I tend to have friends that are very much like me, and I have other friends that are very different. This is not a concsious effort on my part or in any way contrived- I really enjoy the richness both the “sameness” and the “different” brings to my life.
    2. I do love my individuality and my privacy, but I believe creativity and global views of the world require collective thought. I think college students for the most part are a bit insecure, thus over time, when they have developed a more concrete sense of self through their education and their experiences, this individulaity will be balanced with the need to search out the “other”. I am more worried about the students/citizens that don’t go to college-as their perspectives might stay insular, and individualisitc for the entire course of their life.
    3. You need quite a bit of charisma and gravitas to pull off the one man show schtick. I think using a variety of teaching stratategies in a college course is just as important to include as it is at the elementary/highschool level to ensure student engagement and learning.
    4. I am a bit surprised by Rebeekah’s findings as I was under the assumption that there was a great deal of community felt in the freshmen population, especially the dorm living crowd. There is still a collectivity for the most part with freshmen, it’s just a bit more selective, inclusive, and secluded than I surmised.

    • Becky,
      I don’t having any positive feelings toward this book. This is a 50-year-old woman living in a dorm full of 18-19 year olds. Is it any wonder that she did not feel the inclusion or a sense of community? She mentions her shock about the lack of activity during the Super Bowl. Yet, once she began walking down the dorm hallways, there were people filling dorm rooms. Just because she did not get invited does not mean there wasn’t a community under her nose.

      I think a study from a person that can pass for an 18-19 year old and one who is willing to share the living quarters would yield more insight.

  8. 1. I attended one year of college and then got married at 19. Many years, many colleges and four children later I returned to school full-time while working and raising my sons. Fast forward 12 years, four college degrees, two credentials, two clear credentials and current enrollment in this Ed. D. program, I would say that my college experience would bot be considered a “typical” college experience.
    2. Unfortunately, I would say that the individualist nature probably applies to me more than it doesn’t. I feel that is the way it is for most of our college students as well. For the most part we are all more comforatable staying within our “comfort zones” and socializing with those that we know. It seems that maintianing a small group of friends is more of a priority than becoming part of the larger community. Again, this could just be my perspective, I made choices that kept me from living the “college life”.
    3. I know from experience that I felt that way teaching middle school. I felt like I had to being my “A game” every day to keep those students engaged.
    4. I wouldn’t say necessarily “surprised” but confirmed suspicians about how different college life is for each individual student and how out of touch the faculty may be with the students’ perspective. If they were truly connected there would be more “connectedness” with campus life, orientation, procedures and processes in general.

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