Bright-faced freshmen fill the Drill Field on Mississippi State University’s campus, accompanied by their untapped potential and undiscovered dreams. While these newest members of the Bulldog family move into residence halls and hurriedly cross campus to find class locations, they’re actively seeking answers to a multitude of questions:
What career should I choose? What friends will I meet? What memories will I make?
What impact will Mississippi State have on my future?
Three years ago, Terence Williams was one of those questioning freshmen. Today, the senior electrical engineering major is the developer of 13 apps with his own development company that’s caught the attention of technology front-runner Apple Inc. and the White House.
Williams traces all of that success to a single experience during his first year on the Starkville campus.
With no prior programming knowledge, the Oakland, Mississippi, native enrolled in a one-hour seminar class called iProgram, designed specifically with first-year students in mind. It was then that Williams discovered his passion for app development.
“That class determined everything for me,” Williams said. “Taking that one FYE course was the driving force in determining my path forward.”
Now in its third year, MSU’s First-Year Experience program is a collection of specially designed classes, like iProgram, meant to introduce freshmen and transfer students to the university environment. By combining small class settings with intriguing topics of study, Mississippi State is looking to improve student success and engage new students during their first semester on campus.
With more than 20 courses based in various departments across campus, FYE offers first-year students plentiful opportunities to expand on a beloved interest or pursue a previously foreign endeavor, like Williams did.
“I actually enjoyed the course so much that I kept going back to it and redid the material three times,” Williams said. “If it wasn’t for that programming class, I wouldn’t be an iOS developer right now.”
KICK-START THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE
After garnering the attention of the full classroom, Timothy Derby spouts commands to his silent students.
It’s his first year teaching an FYE class, but the philosophy and religion instructor has found an unconventional way to help freshmen find their footing at the beginning of their college careers – through the practice of karate.
Together, the students follow Derby’s bold commands of “rei” and “yame,” each striking a focused, attentive pose then bowing in unison, before finally returning to a relaxed stance.
During the weekly meetings of Philosophy and Discipline of Karate and Self-Defense, Derby plans to introduce his students to the sport, including its origin and the reasoning behind fight or flight mentalities. They will learn techniques on how and where to strike an attacker according to the body’s pressure points.
Most importantly, Derby said he intends to share fundamentals of karate that his students can then apply to college life and beyond.
“Karate, just like the religion classes that I teach, has intangible elements that will tangibly impact you,” Derby said. “Traditional karate is a lifestyle. Even if these students aren’t incorporating karate long term, there are principles that are going to impact their lives.”
Derby said he believes FYE students can set themselves up for unparalleled success by embracing his karate-based lessons.
“I want to help these freshmen acclimate to college and have an environment here once a week where they can decompress, but I also want to offer them a foundation as they start their different roads to success,” Derby said.
FORAY INTO FRIENDSHIPS (AND FANDOM)
While forging his foundation in app development, Williams discovered that he simultaneously formed a camaraderie with his fellow iProgram students.
“I was able to meet people from different majors and backgrounds,” Williams said. “We all really formed a programming community while we collaborated on these projects.”
Developing that sense of community and belonging is exactly what gender studies professor Rachel Allison is fostering among her FYE students between early morning sessions of Quidditch on the Drill Field.
Originating from J.K. Rowling’s fictional world of Harry Potter, Quidditch combines elements of soccer, dodgeball and rugby into one action-packed sport. It also presents a unique opportunity as a gender-integrated sport, allowing no more than four players of a single gender on each six-member team.
“We don’t have many opportunities to play sports in gender-integrated settings, and I think that really does us a general disservice,” Allison said. “I think Quidditch, in this FYE setting, allows us to foster greater levels of respect for women and challenge the stereotypes of women in sports.”
In its second year as an FYE seminar, Quidditch for Muggles has become a melting pot of freshmen, allowing Allison to focus more on building unity among her students rather than just focusing on every technical aspect of the sport.
“This class really draws a diverse group, from different majors that will go in different directions after their freshman classes,” Allison said. “Right now, they’re able to meet people who aren’t in their major and create a wider network across campus.”
That potential network is something her students have already caught onto, even in the third week of the semester.
“For me, I’ve been into the Harry Potter books since second grade. Actually playing the sport is still kind of surreal,” said George Crook, a freshman mechanical engineering major. “What’s really great about Quidditch is that it’s coed. We have guys and girls of all backgrounds and majors out here, brought together by Harry Potter.
BUZZING WITH CURIOSITY
Tapping into unknown subjects and exploring curiosities is a crucial part the FYE program. Students earn one hour of class credit for FYE courses and are encouraged to take “one for fun” before diving into specialized work in a specific major.
For Williams, that meant learning to do something he never thought he could—creating apps for a smartphone. For students in Insect Pets and Pests: Satisfy Your Curiosities and Conquer Your Fears, it means heading into territory that many would consider dangerous.
Filing into their class space, students in John Guyton’s FYE seminar immediately notice the boxes of gear stacked along the wall. In a matter of minutes, they begin to zip themselves into the beekeeper suits necessary for the day’s lesson.
Throughout the semester, Guyton will introduce his inquisitive students to the world of entomology, beginning with a look at the inner workings of a bee hive and tasting honey straight from a comb.
“Getting to see bees up close will be something that they will never forget, and that’s a pretty unique experience for a freshman to have,” the associate extension professor said.
Guyton said he also hopes sharing his passion for entomology will encourage his students to expand their comfort zones. With class opportunities that range from getting personal with tarantulas to exploring the environmental impact of insects, most of his students will accomplish just that.
“For many people, their most frequent interaction with wildlife is through insects,” Guyton said. “My hope is for this experience to increase students’ curiosity about the insects they encounter, reduce irrational fears and contribute to their understanding of the university as the place where learning replaces superstition.”
VETTING POTENTIAL CAREERS
The array of eclectic courses offered through FYE offers freshmen a chance to explore potential career paths before committing to a major. For students like Williams, that can mean opening their eyes to something previously unconsidered, while others might find an eye-opening look into the major they planned to pursue.
In Veterinary Medicine: Beyond Shots and Deworming, Dr. Patty Lathan leads a group of FYE students through the challenge and adventure of life in veterinary medicine. She gives her first-year students the opportunity to work side-by-side with both student and professional veterinarians in Mississippi State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Not many students get to work with specialists as they pull a golf ball out of a Labrador’s stomach with an endoscope or observe the surgical repair of a dog’s cruciate ligament,” Lathan said.
“With this FYE class, not only do they get to see cool stuff, but they get to see what life would be like as a veterinary student,” she continued. “When students get to see what we do, we’re hopeful they can see themselves doing the same things in a few years.”
Although not all of her first-year students will pursue a career in veterinary medicine, Lathan believes the FYE seminar does help them narrow down a potential career path.
“For some of them, I think it invigorates their passion for getting into vet school and helps them remember why they’re drudging through some of their more difficult classes,” Lathan explained. “For others, it helps them decide that veterinary medicine isn’t for them and allows them to look into other options.”
THE ROAD FORWARD
Williams’ single FYE course uncovered a previously unknown talent for technology and set him on an unforeseen journey that in just five years has already taken him to places he never imagined he would go.
“Since taking the iProgram course, my career goals have changed completely,” Williams said. “I started off seeing myself as an engineer working in manufacturing, and now I actually see myself working as an iOS developer for Apple or working at a development company as my own boss.”
After receiving one of 350 international scholarships to attend Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference in June, and meeting Apple CEO Tim Cook, Williams said he has even more confidence in his programming abilities. His Bully Walk app has also gained popularity with the MSU campus, averaging 400 downloads every day and being used 5,000 times on the first day of fall classes.
This fall, he attended the White House Frontiers Conference hosted by President Barack Obama at Carnegie Mellon University.
“Now that I’ve had the opportunity to present at different conferences, I know I have a great foundation for releasing Bully Walk and my other apps,” Williams said. “Simply put, my FYE class gave me everything I needed to pursue my dream.”