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Juniors and Seniors Become Role Models for First-year Students

In FIGS program, upper-class students act as teachers and mentors

NR13FIGSseminar4183 r1 1x2 color editIt seemed like a typical scene from medical school.

Michael Nanfara asked his students to construct arguments around medical ethics issues, everything from universal health care coverage to euthanasia. 

“Be prepared to lead a discussion,” he said. “If you are going into medicine, these are issues you are going to have to wrestle with for the rest of your life.”

But Nanfara isn’t a professor. He’s an undergraduate in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS). And his class was made up entirely of first-year students.

The in-class exercise, as it turns out, was a typical scene from the First Year Interest Group Seminars, or FIGS.

The seminars are 10-week courses in which upper-class students teach and mentor first-year students, providing practical information for navigating Rutgers while exposing them to a subject that may become their chosen field.

FIGSMikeNanfara360x240There are more than 30 FIGS courses – everything from animal science to English literature to sports management – taught by instructors who are typically majoring in the subject.

“FIGS introduces first-year students to the resources and opportunities that exist at Rutgers and also to a topical area,” said Lyn Krueger, director of new students programs in The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, which oversees FIGS.

Krueger added that:  “The experience helps them very early on in their college career to think about how they’re going to plan out their four years here.”

But it’s not only first-year students who benefit from FIGS. The seminars have a powerful impact on those juniors and seniors who, as peer instructors, assume the role of classroom teachers and mentors.
“It’s really one of the most rewarding things I’ve done at Rutgers,” said Nanfara, a Molecular Biology and Biochemistry major.

Indeed, peer instructors, whom Krueger calls “the best and brightest,” say the experience of being on the other side of the classroom was transformative for the way it helped them develop poise and confidence, as well as a range of practical skills. They learn, for example, how to craft a curriculum expansive enough to serve as a primer on both Rutgers, and an academic field, yet concise enough to accomplish those goals in 10 classes.

FIGSJuliMcDonald360x240Juli McDonald, an SAS senior, developed a highly-detailed syllabus for her history seminar that made room for the Battle of Little Big Horn as well as “Registration and RU Involvement.”

As part of the FIGS program, she melded her topic area with news-you-can-use for students. Her lecture on the history of test-taking, for example, also included discussion of the three types of learning styles – auditory, visual, and kinesthetic – and how students need to understand their own learning styles to prepare for exams at Rutgers.

“FIGS has taught me how to be ready for any situation,” said McDonald, a history major. “It’s a totally new role to be the person in front of the classroom and it sharpens your decision-making skills and makes you quick on your feet.”

Ireh Michelle Shin agreed. Shin, an SAS senior who led a FIGS seminar in anthropology, said the experience taught her valuable organizational and time management skills, but also something more intangible – a sense of confidence in her own direction.

Majoring in anthropology and women's and gender studies, she wants to get involved with Teach for America, and pursue a career in public policy work, with a focus on inequities in American schools. “The FIGS experience has confirmed for me that I can do this – that I’m passionate about helping people,” she said.

FIGSMichelleShin360x240During her seminars, Shin had students put their desks in a circle for an interactive discussion on failing schools, which included a showing of the documentary Waiting for Superman.

She then connected those themes to the concepts of structure and agency which are used widely in the social sciences to explain human behavior. Structure is the arrangements which influence or limit choices and opportunities, while agency is the capacity to act independently and make choices.

“If they pursue anthropology they’ll be pursuing these concepts again and again,” she said. “But even if they don’t pursue anthropology, these are reoccurring themes in life.”

Peer instructors say one of the most satisfying aspects of FIGS is helping younger students succeed at Rutgers.

Nanfara, who taught the Health and Medicine seminar, said he went through his own period of indecision as a first-year student, wavering between medical school or a graduate research path – a decision he is still working through.

“My own experience has made me more open-minded,” Nanfara said. “I want to open students’ eyes to all the wonderful careers out there and help them understand that they don’t have to be on a standard cookie cutter path to achieve success.”




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