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Oct. 20, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 4

Asst. Prof. Jennifer Purnell (Political Science) leads a Cornerstone seminar in the Thompson Room of Burns Library: "I've enjoyed getting a better sense of what the students' lives are like when they first arrive at Boston College, both inside and outside of the classroom." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Freshmen Are Flocking to Cornerstone Electives

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

What do a half a cheeseburger, the Gospel of Luke and a discussion of time management have in common?

If you're one of the first year students in the Cornerstone Program Advisement Seminar directed by Prof. Michael Graf (Physics), they're all part of the conversation.

The seminar is a 12-week, one-credit elective that encourages freshmen in the College of Arts and Sciences to reflect on their academic and personal goals and, eventually, acquire the tools to confront difficult choices they may encounter, inside the classroom and out, during their time at Boston College.

This year, 800 freshmen - nearly 40 percent of the Class of 2009 - are taking Cornerstone Program-sponsored courses, all of which feature a small-group discussion format. While two of the classes, the Freshman Writing Seminar and Perspectives in Western Civilization, enable students to fulfill core requirements, no Cornerstone courses are required.

Nonetheless, increasing numbers of first-year students are signing up for the Advisement Seminar or choosing from a new slate of seminars, which enable students to explore a range of topics from the Vietnam War to genetic research. The current enrollment for these elective one-credit seminars is 365, or one-sixth of all freshmen.

"It's not like any other course I'm taking as there's a lot less pressure," said Sarah Alsamarai '09, who says the Advisement Seminar led by Graf offers a chance "to breathe" each week.

On one recent rain-soaked morning in Higgins Hall, Alsamarai and her fellow first-year students settled in for their 75-minute class, which included a discussion on the parable of the prodigal son from Luke's Gospel. But the conversation touched on other subjects.

"Who's got something to share?" Graf asked the semi-circle of faces peering back at him.

After a very brief discussion of Noam Chomsky (one student met him over the weekend), the vagaries of the University's e-mail system (deleted messages aren't really deleted), and the wisdom of finishing a paper just minutes before it is due (bad idea), the attention turned to one student who is the resident expert on locating free vittles.

"I've got half a cheeseburger in my bag," he said to laughter from his classmates. He then sheepishly admitted he didn't have any new discoveries on where to find free food.

Later, the discussion returned to the prodigal son, with Graf and his students posing questions to one another.

"What do you think the role of fairness is in this?" asked Graf.

"It's not a matter of fairness," said one student. "It's about family."

"What is the purpose of family?" asked Graf, the silence hanging in the air for a moment until the student spoke again.

"Families are something you can turn to, people who look out for you. In this case, the family is celebrating that the son came back," he said.

Students who enroll in the Freshman Advisement Seminars say they take on the extra credit for a variety of reasons: Some seek the chance to get to know a faculty member, others say the reflective aspects of the course will help them discern the choices that lay before them in college. For some students, such as Enrique Colon-Barco '09, the seminar he takes with Asst. Prof. Jennifer Purnell (Political Science) has also offered the chance to know others on a deeper level.

"In other classes, the relationship with your classmates is based on the subject of the class," he explained. "Your friends from Cornerstone get to know you from what your questions about living in college, your doubts, your fears, and your thoughts about the readings assigned for class."

For faculty members like Purnell, the seminars are as much about learning as they are about teaching.

"I really enjoy discussing the readings each week with the students," said Purnell. "For the most part, we read fiction, and this takes me out of my field and area of expertise and allows me to explore questions along with the students.

"I've also enjoyed getting a better sense of what the students' lives are like when they first arrive at Boston College, both inside and outside of the classroom."

The Cornerstone Program offers a collection of five individual courses that are designed as special opportunities for first-year students. Two of these courses, Courage to Know and First Year Writing Seminar, are taken for a full load of three credits. Perspectives in Western Culture is a two-semester 12-credit course, which fulfills the core requirements in philosophy and theology.

Introduced last year and expanded this year, Cornerstone's Freshman Topic Seminars offer students the chance to explore a certain area of interest with a faculty member in a small group setting.

Sections offered this semester include "Discussing Politics" with Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science), "America's War in Vietnam" with Asst. Prof. Seth Jacobs (History) and "The Genetic Century" with Assoc. Prof. Clare O'Connor (Biology), to name just a few.

"These courses offer interested students a chance to study something in which they might have some interest and get to know the faculty member," said College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean Clare Dunsford, who manages the Cornerstone program and credits late A&S Dean J. Robert Barth, SJ, for its creation.

Cornerstone courses are graded on a pass/fail basis and often involve co-curricular activities such as dinner at a faculty member's home or a trip to the BC Career Center.

Faculty members who serve as seminar leaders also serve as the academic advisor to the students enrolled in the seminar for the their freshman year.

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