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Finding Purpose and Meaning in the First Year—and Beyond

New course helps Duke Engineering first-year students develop skills to thrive in school and in life

The first semester at college changes so many things—from addresses to relationships to knowledge. It’s a time of amazing new experiences of joy and discovery. And, for many students, it’s a time of high stress and anxiety.

For 50 first-year students at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, a new experiential course being piloted this fall is offering strategies and a supportive network to help them flourish in college—and beyond.

“I’d like our students to ask themselves: What does it take to make a good life? Not just to be a great engineer, but to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.”

Ravi V. Bellamkonda
Vinik Dean of Engineering

The course—called Thrive (EGR 79S)—is part of a larger transformation of Duke Engineering’s undergraduate curriculum aimed at developing not only students’ technical and problem-solving skills, but their creativity and confidence.

“I’d like our students to ask themselves: What does it take to make a good life? Not just to be a great engineer, or a great citizen of Duke or the world, but to live a meaningful and fulfilling life,” said Vinik Dean of Engineering Ravi V. Bellamkonda. “The new Thrive course, I believe, is a great way to begin the journey to answering that question.”

During the 15-week semester, students connect with other first-year engineering students and with a faculty or staff mentor. Through small-group discussions and activities, students learn more about themselves, build resilience, create a community and develop personal well-being.

Research suggests these skills help make for a good transition to college life and provide a foundation for coping with the rigors of modern engineering education—as well as life’s ups and downs. Each course section has 10 students, and class meetings are held weekly for 75 minutes.

Some of the course’s modules were first used during the pre-orientation program for the 2018 group of A. James Clark Scholars. The scholars, selected from the incoming first-year class of engineering students, arrived on campus a week before their university orientation. The theme of the program was “Engineering Resilient Leaders.”

The week-long program was developed by David Pittman, Duke’s senior director for student engagement in consultation with Bill Walker, director of the A. James Clark Scholars Program at Duke.

In follow-up surveys, said Walker (himself a Duke Engineering graduate), many Clark Scholars responded that the pre-orientation was a highlight of their lives and was deeply meaningful.

“I found that learning about yourself and becoming self-aware is extremely valuable,” said participant Philip Liu, now a Duke Engineering sophomore. “You learned what your strengths are, what areas you can improve in and what opportunities to take advantage of. This directly applies to your time at Duke—how you’ll work in teams, how you’ll learn from professors and how to better yourself.”

“I found that learning about yourself and becoming self-aware is extremely valuable."

Philip Liu
Sophomore and A. James Clark Scholar at duke

Pittman expanded and developed the week-long program into the semester-long Thrive course.

The response from students confirmed demand for this kind of content. Jennifer Ganley, Duke Engineering’s director of undergraduate student affairs and a Thrive instructor, said the 50 slots for the zero-credit course filled quickly.

During the course, students discuss sources of stress and modes of resilience. They will also take the DiSC personality profile and reflect on what it says about their social identities. The course concludes with a dive into the notion of self-compassion, and its ability to help people overcome adversity.

Key to the course, Pittman said, is generating a sense of belonging and the ability to accept yourself as you are.

“An authentic sense of belonging is one of the keys to personal fulfillment,” he said. “Belonging means having good relationships. Good relationships, the literature shows, help us cope in difficult times and build resilience.”

Duke Engineering leaders hope to expand the course in future years. 

“We will be looking for opportunities to offer this experience to as many students as we can,” Walker said.

Already, it appears the course has been embraced by its students.

In most university classes, Pittman said, it’s not unusual to see students bolt from the classroom when an instruction period ends.

The end of the first meeting of his Thrive course section, after 75 minutes of activities and discussions related to University of Houston researcher Brené Brown’s TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” was far different.

“They stayed in the room, and kept talking as a group,” he said. “They started sharing phone numbers—making connections—and then made plans to have lunch together. It was wonderful.”

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