DU pilots “the future of higher education” with 4D reboot of traditional college experience

The University of Denver is undertaking a reboot of the traditional college experience, delving beyond the academic realm and investing in students’ well-roundedness.

The private research university is piloting what it’s calling a four-dimensional student experience that focuses on four core tenets: intellectual growth, career development, character exploration and well-being.

“We are literally re-inventing the student experience. The moment a student comes on campus, we’ll start working with them to design their set of experiences,” DU Chancellor Jeremy Haefner said. “What do they want? Study abroad? Internships? Research projects? We’ll map out for them when they can do these kinds of experiences. The key will be getting them to reflect on those experiences and learn the kinds of outcomes we want them to have in those dimensions.

“By the time they graduate, they’ll be ready for these lives of purpose, careers of fulfillment and really be successful in a world that isn’t as simple as when I was going to college.”

While the initiative is in its early stages now — around 150 first-year students currently are enrolled in the pilot program — Haefner envisions expanding the four-dimensional approach to all undergraduate and graduate students over the next four to five years.

For 18-year-old Mayerli Lopez-Hernandez, being a part of the inaugural 4D class has given the first-generation college student solid footing when it comes to navigating what can be a confusing university bureaucracy.

On Friday, Lopez-Hernandez met with one of her 4D mentors, a fellow first-generation college student.

“Finals are coming up in a few weeks, and I’m scheduling this meeting to touch base and see what I’m doing well on and what I can do better,” Lopez-Hernandez said beforehand. “I’m given advice on not just my career, but my emotional well-being. One thing I’ve learned from the 4D program is how to reach out and communicate in a way that will benefit me.”

Haefner wants the wraparound services intended to help students connect their extracurricular activities with their classroom learning through mentorship to become a reason students choose DU — an ethos synonymous with a university interested in a more holistic approach to postsecondary learning.

“How students reflect and learn”

How will the 4D experience be different from a typical DU experience?

Haefner — who has been working with students, staff, faculty and administrators to develop the program — imagined incoming students flipping through a course catalogue but instead of classes, they’d select experiences that fall within the four core tenets of the initiative.

The students would receive advising and mentoring by a faculty member, an upper-division student and maybe even an alumni to help them figure out what experiences would be best for them to sign up for based on their passions and career interests.

Maybe to satisfy the wellness category, a student chooses a workshop in nutrition. To meet the character exploration pillar, a student might sign up for a workshop on how to have difficult conversations. A scholar interested in a finance career might meet with their adviser to determine what kinds of internships would be available for them and when they need to start thinking about those opportunities.

“A big part of this will be facilitating how students reflect and learn,” Haefner said. “So we can help them plan out their study abroad but also will have coaches to work with them to think about their study abroad experience. What was it like to live with a family? How did you show respect for the family? How did the family show respect for you? Those kinds of takeaways you sometimes take for granted if you don’t reflect.”

University officials did not provide a dollar figure for how much the revamp will cost the campus, but Haefner said the university would allocate strategic planning money toward the effort but that it would also be incumbent on fundraising. Jon Stone, DU spokesman, noted a good portion of the initiative plans to expand on existing programming.

However, there are a few new additions to the campus that Haefner said fall under the 4D experience, including three new buildings: the 132,000-square-foot Community Commons, the Dimond Family Residential Village and the Burwell Center for Career Achievement.

“The residence hall is about building community with kids living in that space,” Haefner said. “Burwell is about their careers and connecting employers and alumni with students and then the Community Commons is a student union enabling students to have their meals together and housing student support services, study abroad, veteran services, all those things in one location to collaborate and make connections.”

On the horizon, Haefner said the 4D program intends to incorporate outdoor education into its everyday academic mission. University officials are considering an Outward Bound-styled educational experience for students and also figuring out a way to make mountain access easier for all students.

“With the proximity to the Rocky Mountains, there is an untapped potential for the university to engage with that aspect of the Colorado environment,” Stone said.

Pilot program underway

The pilot program in which about 150 first-year students enrolled in a course called “Redesigning Your Life” began in the fall. The professors doubled as mentors, the class sizes were small — maybe 15 students to a course — and the conversations were deep, said Heather Martin, a DU writing professor who taught the course.

Martin is also the the director of DU’s first-year seminar program, which allows first-year students an engaging, intimate introduction to college learning. This year, Martin’s course was infused with the tenets of the 4D experience.

For example, Martin prompted her students to consider and name their core values. Then, she showed them how to look for classes, clubs, activities and events that align with those values. Because the courses encouraged students to share about themselves, Martin said she was better able to advise students on a personal level or recommend activities she thought they might like.

“The thing that really surprised me was the depth of the relationships I was able to build with students as their adviser and their professor,” Martin said. “A lot of our most vulnerable students were struggling with loss and illness and racial trauma and economic trauma that really just came out in more natural ways in those 4D classes because they had been invited to share more of their whole selves. In some ways, they’re the subject of the class and their sense of who they want to be and who they want to become is part of the curriculum of the class.”

Lopez-Hernandez had no idea what to expect out of college. She didn’t even know what a financial aid packet was at the time she began in the fall, but she said the 4D program connected her with resources the campus had to offer that aren’t always in plain sight.

“My professor taught me all these skills and tools to navigate college not just as a student but as a first-generation student, making sure I’m embracing that piece,” Lopez-Hernandez said. “It’s very crucial in how I go about things at the university.”

Lopez-Hernandez said she, like many college students, struggles with mental health issues, but that the 4D program encouraged her to better look after her mental and emotional well-being.

“If I am in touch with my emotions, I am more likely to succeed than if I was continuing to put off how I feel,” Lopez-Hernandez said.

The biology major with minors in leadership, Japanese and Spanish said she has always found solace in writing but quit writing for pleasure in high school when her work load became overwhelming.

“I have started writing again,” Lopez-Hernandez said. “I joined a writing club here at the university, and it is a passion of mine and a nice mind break from all the other hardships around me. That’s something I don’t think I could have done without the emotional tips we were taught in 4D.”

Martin noted that in K-12 education, social and emotional learning is a big focus for ensuring student success.

“Because higher education is dealing with adults, there is just less of that culture of care, but I really think that the more we pay attention to rates of depression and anxiety among college students, the more it really becomes our responsibility to pay attention to these issues. If a student is struggling, they’re not going to thrive academically, so I really think it’s the future of higher education if we want to help our students really be successful and be whole.”

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