“You’re not there to be with 100 students like a bio lecture, so it was really cool to be there with a professor that’s passionate about what they’re teaching and other first-years that are in the same spot of transitioning into college,” said Emily McKinney, senior. She took two first-year seminars.
“One was ‘North Carolina Geology,’ and we took two field trips to Wilmington, and I’m from Wilmington, so that was really fun. The other one was an education first-year seminar called ‘Schooling Versus Education,’ and it actually helped me pick up a minor, and introduced me to something that I’m super passionate about. I want to be a teacher now, and that was the first experience I had with an education class.”
Other students who didn’t enjoy their first-year seminar still recommend them to incoming students.
“I thought it would be a straight-up seminar, but it was pretty heavily graded. I ended up with a B or something,” Jared Blum, a senior who took a first-year seminar on nanotechnology, said.
“It’s a good way to not overpack your schedule. I wouldn’t recommend this physics one, because it was real science-y. But usually they do a good job of letting you meet other freshmen.”
Luis Lucas-Tzun, a senior graduating in August, did not take a first-year seminar but wishes he had.
“I was really focused on my major, and I didn’t feel like I had time to mess around with that kind of stuff,” said Lucas-Tzun. “I wish I did take one, because it knocks out so many gen eds. My junior year I had to spend a lot of time knocking out random gen eds for like, philosophy and all this stuff I didn’t care about it.”
First-year seminars don’t just offer students new experiences. They often give faculty the opportunity to teach a subject that they specialize in.
“Generally in a department, especially chemistry, your teaching assignment may not be something that’s your favorite thing to talk about, but it’s just part of the job,” Dr. Todd Austell, a research assistant professor in the chemistry department, said. “Seminars are different, it’s usually someone’s specialty.”
Austell is teaching “From Atomic Bombs to Cancer Treatments: The Broad Scope of Nuclear Chemistry” for the fifth time this fall, and while nuclear chemistry isn’t his specialty, it is a field that he is highly interested in and has studied extensively.
“I’m not a nuclear chemist, I’m an analytical chemist,” Austell said. “But I’ve been interested in nuclear chemistry since I was an undergrad. We don’t have nuclear chemistry in the chemistry department, and a lot of students are interested in learning more about it. It’s been a fun one to design and teach.”
First-year seminars may be less than 20 years old at UNC, but they aren’t a new concept. Dr. Jan Bardsley, a professor in the department of Asian studies, has taught a first-year seminar every year since the 1990s. She participated in a first-year seminar on the 17th and 20th centuries in 1969 as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis.
“The late ‘60s were a time of experimenting, and one of the experiments was a first-year seminar that would last all year for 30 students, and you had to apply to get in,” Bardsley said.
Bardsley met her husband in the class when she was paired with him for an oral exam. She said she remembers her first-year seminar as something that shaped her college experience.
“Now, when (my husband and I) look over our college classes, it’s really that first-year seminar that stands out as something that pushed us to think and interact with professors,” she said. “It was just so valuable. I don’t think there are any other classes that stand out in the same way.”