New learning community stretches the limits of 'connections'

Suzanne Härle in a virtual event with her learning community

Learning community coordinator Suzanne Härle (pictured) and admissions assistant director Jorge Calderon, from their campus offices, joined a virtual social event, dubbed "snack and chat," run by peer mentor and ISU senior Tracy Le earlier this week. Eight weeks into fall semester, the learning community students are asking for more live time with each other, Härle said.
"Food is something we all do, we all love, and it works wherever you are and whatever time it is, so this seemed like an obvious topic," she said. Participants introduced themselves, shared what they were eating and talked about other foods they love. At her turn, Härle praised the Greek lunch options at The Hub, a chance to plug a campus dining location for students who haven't set foot on campus yet. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

One of Iowa State's seven new student learning communities this fall occurs 100% online. Understandable, perhaps, in a global pandemic. But by necessity the International Adventure learning community (IALC) relies on websites and smartphone apps because it's connecting 58 students in 20 countries on four continents who were unable to get to Ames for their first semester of college. While most learning community members share a major, this group is enrolled across all six undergraduate colleges.

Last April, admissions executive director Katharine Johnson Suski and assistant director for international recruitment Jorge Calderon spotted a challenge for the international students their team had worked hard to recruit. Service reductions at U.S. embassies were delaying students' visa applications when they couldn't schedule the required interview. Others faced travel restrictions. Suski approached learning communities director Jen Leptien with her idea for a one-semester team whose members could begin their transition to Iowa State from home, and by the end of May enough details were hammered out to announce the new learning community. Then, the work really began.

Happy 25th

New learning communities in 2020-21

  • Advertising and Public Relations
  • AMD (apparel merchandising and design) Transitions
  • Criminal Justice League
  • Data Science
  • Environmental Engineering
  • International Adventure
  • Science of Language

Suzanne Härle (HAR-lee), director of international student success in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who regularly travels with the international admissions team, came on board as learning community coordinator.

"Because of her previous professional experiences, Suzanne knows this population and makes great connections with people," Leptien said. "Plus, she understands our learning community philosophy so well."

Härle tailored University Studies 123X, Introduction to Iowa State University, for her diverse group. Teaching asynchronously in Canvas because students live in at least a half dozen time zones, Härle said she focused on connecting students to campus support services and making academic plans. For example, each undergraduate college is providing two live introductory sessions on its programs and curriculum, including experiential learning and research opportunities. Because students have an assignment attached to their college session -- and for students who might change their majors this fall -- all the sessions are recorded.

Virtual opportunities

Härle said one silver lining to the pandemic forcing so many student events to a virtual format -- orientation, ClubFest, career fairs, for example -- is that that IALC students can experience some of them, albeit at an odd hour of the night or day.

Coming up is a unit on Iowa State traditions and a project with another first-year learning community, linguistics academic adviser Taylor Anne Barriuso's Science of Language. Members of the two learning communities will complete 30-minute video interviews with each other to learn more about an individual who grew up in a place unlike their home and to share their Iowa State experiences.

"Taylor Anne's students come at this from linguistics and world cultures perspectives, so it's a good fit for them," Härle said. "And before they ever arrive, our international adventure students get to ask students in Ames for their Iowa State recommendations."

Peer mentors provide the glue

As with all of the other 94 learning communities in Iowa State's lauded program, which celebrates its 25th year this fall, IALC relies on peer mentors to help first-year students connect to each other and the university. Each of three mentors on this team interacts with 19-20 students this fall. Starting with email introductions before classes began, the mentors later collected cellphone numbers and created groups in the WeChat and WhatsApp platforms so students can text each other and share photos, videos and helpful websites. Via one-on-one video chat, peer mentors check in with each of their students about once a month.

"Thousands of miles separate them, but I can see the connections developing. They offer study tips to each other, they share interest in the same hobby," Härle said. "We put things in place for them, but for most of them, they really run with it."

Finding links

Härle likened the task of giving this unusual learning community a framework to "building the plane while we're waiting for takeoff." To create smaller teams, learning community members were assigned to one of four tracks by their majors:

  • Engineering (22 students)
  • Computer science (13)
  • Pre-business (7)
  • General: majors in the colleges of Design, Human Sciences, Agriculture and Life Sciences and Liberal Arts and Sciences excluding computer science (16)

In June, Härle worked with senior associate registrar Shawna Saad and college associate deans to identify a limited set of appropriate core courses for each track, with options to accommodate the students' math and English placement results. Before the fall campus instruction plan was set, many of those core courses didn't exist online yet. Härle said college leaders and Susan Wohlsdorf-Arendt, online learning faculty fellow in the provost's office, stepped up again to move sections online. Santos Núñez, multicultural/international student retention coordinator for the College of Engineering, confirmed course lists for students in that track, Härle did the same for students in the other three tracks and Saad registered the 58 students for fall semester.

"I'm the lucky one who gets to show off this really cool learning community, but so many people bought in to the idea and collaborated to make this happen on a tight timeline," Härle said. "It took thousands of emails this summer, among administrators, staff and our students, to piece this all together."

She anticipates some of the learning community members will be on campus for spring semester. For others, next fall is an achievable goal.