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Learning community supports undecided students

For a first-year college student, choosing a major can be exciting, confusing, and downright scary. The Iowa State University College of Human Sciences (CHS) now offers a learning community to help undecided students explore their options and connect with resources on campus.

“The College of Human Sciences has had increasing numbers of undecided students over the past few years,” said Darlene Fratzke, faculty adviser for the Making Informed Decisions (MINDS) learning community. “Some of them know they want to work with people, but aren’t quite sure what that looks like. Others are choosing between one or two specific options.”

“The idea for this learning community actually came from a parent during orientation last year,” said Dayle Nickerson, the other faculty adviser for MINDS. “She said, “If anyone needs a learning community, it’s these undecided students.'”

After that discussion, Nickerson and Fratzke collaborated to make MINDS a reality. The new program enrolled 33 undecided freshmen into its first cohort this fall. These students take two classes together – orientation and academic learning skills – and participate in educational and social activities to interact with peers, explore the Iowa State campus, and learn about different fields of study.

The peer mentors for MINDS, Dan McCoy and Rachel Kirkpatrick, understand how overwhelming choosing a major can be. McCoy – a senior in apparel, merchandising, and design – changed his major seven times and enrolled in five different colleges during his time at Iowa State.

“I really want to help calm any anxiety the students may have about being undecided,” McCoy said. “Learning communities are a great way for students to get connected right away.”

Kirkpatrick – also a senior – studied journalism, Spanish, linguistics, and criminal justice before settling on child, adult, and family services.

“I want to work with Dan to make sure these new students have the opportunity to discover more about themselves before jumping into a major for the wrong reasons,” Kirkpatrick said.

MINDS helps students acclimate to their new surroundings and build awareness of different majors. Academic advisers from each CHS program will visit the orientation class, and students will take online career assessments through the Student Counseling Service. The learning community will also visit the Academic Success Center and Student Services Building to learn about resources and support offered at Iowa State.

“They’ll be exposed to every major within our college by the spring semester,” Nickerson said. “By the time November comes around, about 60 percent of them have usually decided on a major or switched majors.”

The orientation class also stimulates conversations about topics relevant to students’ lives. They read a book together and discuss “This I Believe” essays on career stereotypes and the practice of exploring new things while retaining a strong sense of self.

“One of the college’s goals is helping students develop critical thinking skills,” Fratzke said. “We can help them do that in a comfortable and controlled environment.”

Overall, Fratzke and Nickerson hope that MINDS will function as an introduction to different academic options and a gateway to student success.

“Once they fly the coop, they find a departmental home and become immersed in their new majors,” Nickerson said. “That’s exactly what we want.”