By Haley Nakonechny
In an effort to showcase the valuable contributions that have been made to the First Seminar Program (FSP) within the last two years, four professors were honored at the annual FSP awards on Wednesday, April 21.
Required for every first-year student here at the College, FSP courses are seminar-style classes that allow students to work in a discipline outside of their major, giving them a diverse education. FSP professors work closely with their students and engage with them in community-engaged learning as well as first-year mentoring. Starting next year, FSP courses will go by a new title, First Year Seminar (FYS).
“The FSP (now called FYS for First Year Seminar) is an important foundation of the TCNJ education and one of the few academic experiences that all TCNJ students share,” said FSP Coordinator Dr. Leann Thornton. “TCNJ stands out in having a course dedicated to a shared academic experience for all new students. Many colleges have a first-year class that is more like orientation to college. Our course challenges students to delve into a scholarly area and develop writing and speaking skills while exploring multiple perspectives on a topic.”
Due to Covid-19 disrupting campus life last year, this year’s ceremony gave awards to both the 2019 and 2020 awardees. Held virtually this year, the event began with Thornton providing introductory remarks praising the candidates and thanking the First Seminar Coordinating Committee for their work organizing the event, as well as other FSP instructors for their dedication to the program.
Following Thornton, President Kathryn Foster delivered her own remarks on her thoughts on FSP, stating that she would love to have the opportunity to teach her own course some day in the future.
“FSPs are core to what it means to teach at The College of New Jersey,” Foster said. “They are core to the TCNJ experience, and as a result there is probably no greater accolade than to win an award as a teacher of an FSP and I just want to congratulate all of our winners. I know it’s two years’ worth of winners, so two years in the making. I am so proud of you, so grateful for all that you do, and so delighted that you are representatives of excellence across the college in terms of its teaching responsibilities.”
Provost Jeffrey Osborn also provided comments on the history and importance of FSP courses at the College, highlighting the unique and broad nature of the various subjects the school provides. Osborn highlighted how FSP classes allow students to not just explore an area of study they are interested in, but to also engage in areas they would not have otherwise.
The first award presented was the Outstanding FSP Course Award. This award is for courses that have stood out due to their balance of writing assignments, superb student feedback on their teaching and their passion into developing a course that meets the program requirements. The award was created in 2018 as a way to celebrate professors who do not normally teach classes within the FSP. Prior to the recipients receiving this award, students spoke highly of their professors, praising the class and their teacher’s passion for teaching.
The recipient of the 2019 award was Professor Nelson Rodriguez for his class “LGBTQ and popular culture.” Rodriguez has been an associate professor at the College since 2004 and teaches women’s, gender and sexuality studies. As a professor, Rodriguez was applauded for his ability to create a safe space for students to speak their minds openly and encourage students to think from a different viewpoint, all while remaining highly accessible in and out of the classroom.
“I really strongly believe that students can engage with academic knowledge in ways that are truly meaningful and relevant, and thus transformative,” Rodriguez said. “For me it is always about, ‘How can I create a transformative experience?’ and for me, bringing together academic knowledge within the context of media studies was one way to make it meaningful, relevant and transformative. I am glad that it resonates, and I look forward to teaching more of this stuff, it’s a lot of fun.”
The Outstanding FSP Course Award for 2020 went to Professor Kim Pearson for her class “Journalism and the search for truth.” Pearson has been an associate professor at the College since 1990, teaching journalism and professional writing. Her class was lauded for its ability to be timely, relevant and polarizing, allowing students to understand how journalists report on news to help us, which was highly relevant in the midst of a pandemic and the ongoing social justice issues.
“All of us who have worked in journalism have been very dismayed to see the decline of trust in real journalism, the attacks on journalism and the confusion out there on what’s credible and what’s not,” Pearson said. “I am passionate about helping students, helping anyone understand, what journalism is and what real journalists do.”
The second award of the evening was the Robert Anderson First Seminar Instructor of the Year Award. Named in honor of Professor Robert Anderson, former Assistant Provost of Liberal Learning, this award is given to those who create an intellectually stimulating and supportive classroom environment for their first-year students. Since 2016, this award is given out to professors who show their commitment to the program by regularly contributing to it.
Professor David Venturo was the 2019 awardee of the Robert Anderson First Seminar Instructor of the Year Award. Venturo is an English professor at the College, with his class “Beatles and their world” receiving excellent feedback from students. Over the years, his dedication to FSP has been apparent, with Venturo’s courses evolving and modifying with his passions that he chose to share with his students.
“As a rule of thumb, the Beatles course represents what I have done over the years,” Venturo said. “I have taught courses on romantic poetry and culture, I’ve taught a class on baseball and American culture, and the course on the Beatles and their world. Largely what I am trying to do is show students that you can have fun while pursuing an academic interest. The pleasure of doing something makes it easier to do. When work doesn’t feel like work, then you can really get people going and that to me has been part of what I tried to do over the years. To work with students and to be flexible with them, to catch their interests and to encourage their interests and to have fun pursuing their work.”
Dr. Rita King was the 2020 recipient of the Robert Anderson First Seminar Instructor of the Year Award. King is an adjunct biology professor at the College and her class titled “The history of disease” proved to be meaningful to her students due to its timeliness and the effort she exerted into making the class what it was.
Senior public health and communications double major Deanna Amarosa still speaks highly of her former professor and the lessons she learned in King’s class.
“Dr. King has tremendously impacted my college career — taking her honors FSP taught me the ways that disease can impact various aspects of society, including culture, art, music and more, and how diseases have altered the course of history,” Amarosa said. “This was invaluable background knowledge which helped me in my public health classes. Dr. King changed my college career by inspiring me to stay updated on diseases in current events and helping me realize the importance of understanding how diseases work biologically in order to inform my studies as a public health student working to prevent disease.”
King’s appreciation for the award was evident as she heard from her former students, as she later remarked on what makes the class special for her.
“I love the FSP because it’s a course that you don’t have to start in a particular place, you don’t have to get the students anywhere; there’s enough science in the course to keep me happy and not enough to overwhelm the students that we have from all different majors,” King said. “If there’s a lot of art majors I bring more art in, if there’s a lot of music I bring more music in, if there’s an economics major I bring in more of what happens as a result of an epidemic.”
The FSP awards not only highlight the accomplishments made by distinguished professors, but also the growth students make as a result of their education, proving to truly be a valuable part of the college experience here at the College.
“The FSP is a cornerstone of the TCNJ education experience,” Osborn said. “The skills that the students build in the FSP support them throughout their college experience here at TCNJ and beyond. For example the critical thinking and writing skills that are central to the FSP are fundamental competencies at almost every course at TCNJ, and are successful for careers in all fields after our students leave the College.”