First-Year Students Learn to Thrive

3/1/20 DukEngineer Magazine

New zero-credit course 'Thrive' arms first-year students with tools to seamlessly transition into college, understand one another and realize resilience

Four people standing on top of the Duke Chapel looking up into the camera
First-Year Students Learn to Thrive

Thrive (EGR 79S) is a zero-credit, pilot engineering course designed to prepare first-year students for the challenges of collegiate life and life in general. Modeled after the Clark Scholars pre-orientation program, Thrive encourages engineering students to learn about both rigorous academic material and themselves while here at Duke. Thrive is designed for a small group of 10 students who meet once a week to engage in dialogue ranging in topics from daily routines to the meaning of success and purpose of life.

Thrive was born from the vision and collaboration of several Duke and Pratt School of Engineering faculty, including David Pittman, senior director for student engagement at Duke, Bill Walker, Mattson Family Director of Entrepreneurship at Duke Engineering, and Ravi Bellamkonda, the Vinik Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. These astute leaders realized the demand for a program to provide engineering students with the skills to develop mindfulness and stress management in their lives. Through Thrive, students are armed with tools to seamlessly transition into college, understand one another and realize resilience as a daily practice.

Pittman divided the course curriculum into three sections: knowledge of one’s self, stress management and exploring one’s purpose. During the first portion, students complete in-depth personality tests like the DISC (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance) test and ‘get-to-know-you’ quizzes that are then shared with the class. These activities foster group discussions, allowing students to learn about group dynamics like individual strengths and weaknesses and each person’s unique outlook on life.

The second section begins about six weeks into the semester after the first round of exams—a great time to talk about stress. During this section, Thrive students are introduced to the many supportive resources on campus through visits to the Academic Resource Center (ARC) and Student Wellness Center. At the Wellness Center, Thrive students are able to experience a private tour of the programs, including “Moments of Mindfulness,” drum therapy and group meditation with Justin Sharpe, associate director of DuWell.

Though Thrive engages students with these beneficial resources, one of its challenges in popularity is that it is a zero-credit course. To some students, it seems like another activity that they would need to allocate their time to. However, many believe the benefit far outweighs the cost.

“I wanted to create a classroom environment where students show up ready to learn, and without having to prepare anything in advance. The primary focus was on creating meaningful connections between the students and with their instructor. Thrive students opted into this wanting the class to be a value added to [their] experience, rather than adding additional stress to their already busy schedules,” Pittman said. “The experiential learning exercises alleviated any out class preparation and served as an incentive for students to stay engaged and complete a zero-credit class.”

The final portion of Thrive focuses on one’s self, but in a new light. Here, students think about their future selves—who they want to be as Duke students and in their lives afterwards. The core of this section centers around students’ values, how those values are important and how they can help guide decision-making and interest-finding.

Through these discussions, the Thrive course fosters a tight-knit group of first-year students who can bond over the challenges they face during their first semester of college. What’s more important is that students are able to garner close relationships with their faculty instructors who serve as mentors. Walker details Thrive’s importance in helping students gain perspective as he recalls his own college transition as a first-generation Duke student from a low-income family.

A group of students and teachers standing in a ballroom“I want students to know that they’re not the only one finding the transition difficult. That they’re not the only one finding it academically and emotionally challenging,” said Walker. “Not only are their student peers facing these challenges, but faculty and staff members have gone through the same challenges. I think that realization helps to frame the struggles that students are having. It’s not the end of the world— these are common problems.”

Jennifer Ganley, Thrive course instructor and director of undergraduate student affairs at Pratt, gives a glimpse of what instructing the course is like as she teaches an insightful group of four students. “What I like about Thrive is that it’s really studentdriven,” she said. “I come in with an idea of a topic and what we’re going to talk about, but where that conversation takes us is really led by who’s in the room at that time.”

For the final course activity, Thrive instructors lead their students up the Duke Chapel tower climb. Tanya Fritz, program coordinator and Thrive instructor, metaphorically connects the tower climb to the completion of first semester.

“You’re climbing up 239 steps in a dark, winding spiral staircase that seemingly goes on forever,” Fritz said. “You’re experiencing fatigue and pressed with doubt of whether you’re going to make it out, but then you finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. At the top is a clear blue sky where you see all of Duke’s beautiful campus and can appreciate what you’ve been able to achieve here.”

Thrive ends with a formal dinner for Thrive instructors and participants, along with guest Dean Ravi Bellamkonda. With the implementation of Thrive, Dean Bellamkonda emphasizes his interest in the well-rounded development of engineering students and their individual growth. It is a motivational closing ceremony that touches on the completion of the first semester and fortifies the benefit of this multi-faceted approach to learning in engineering.

“At Duke Engineering, we are in the midst of an ambitious reimagining of engineering education and experience,” said Bellamkonda. “Ambitious not only in reimagining how great engineers come to be through design thinking, computing, research and entrepreneurship, but also reimagining how to be intentional about our student’s success and well-being holistically. Thrive is our attempt at exploring meaning, success and resilience for our students, and this experience will inform future reimagining of our advising and residential life experiences. It is truly a special time to be at Duke Engineering.”

After its pilot year, Thrive is well on its way to becoming a focal point of Pratt students’ lives, enabling them to thrive at Duke and beyond.

Talya Jeter is a freshman majoring in biomedical engineering and current Thrive participant.