For college students, their first year can be one of the most difficult times of their lives. Moving away from home, adjusting to the rhythm of classes, and learning to balance free time and coursework can all be daunting enough tasks during a normal school year. 

But 2020 has been anything but normal. The current crop of Hokie freshmen has had to deal with social distancing, virtual courses, and the struggle of trying to acclimate to a college experience that might completely change in six months. These new challenges are exactly why Herbert Bruce’s First Year Experiences (FYE) class is more important than ever for new students within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Bruce, a professor of food science and technology, has been helping students transition into higher education for almost 20 years. He helped lead the first-year experience programs of both Lynchburg College and Armstrong Atlantic State College before joining Virginia Tech in 2013, where he picked up a win for Outstanding First-Year Student Advocate, a national recognition given to only five educators annually. For three classes a week he applies this experience toward helping the 132 students enrolled in his FYE course learn the basics of studying, time management, working as a team to accomplish a task — anything they might need to be successful throughout their college career and beyond.

“The whole course is about the transition from high school to college,” Bruce said. “We’ve found that with their new academic freedom and lack of structure, some students can get lost, so we try to give them a bit more structure on what’s important and talk about goals — what they want to accomplish and how they get motivated to accomplish those goals.”

According to Bruce, his teaching style for the course — which relies on real-world examples and Calvin and Hobbes references in almost equal measure — needs to be as practical as the information he hopes to impart. One assignment had the class visit different buildings on campus so students could see the resources available to them — though this has now been exchanged for a tour of online resources — and another had them practice forming a sound academic argument for or against a particular topic.

“Today we looked at planning for your major,” Bruce said. “Research tells us that students in their first year are still in the process of deciding on a major, even if they’ve already picked one. We created four-year plans for different majors that might be appropriate for them, and then we’re going to look at what they can do with each one. For example, if it’s food science, we’re going to see how they could use their skills to contribute to one of the UN’s global goals like eliminate poverty or hunger.”

One of the core focuses of FYE is teaching students to work together and allowing them to socialize, something that Bruce said he worked hard to maintain when adapting the course to account for COVID-19 safety guidelines. Each class is still taught in-person, though now in a room built to accommodate 160 people so the roughly 40 FYE students in each section can safely spread out. 

Bruce also streams each session live via Zoom, so students who can’t come to campus for safety reasons can still get the full FYE experience. While Bruce presents his material, peer mentors — Hokies further along in their student career who volunteer to offer academic and social support to first-year students — monitor the class Zoom chat for questions and responses. 

Making sure that students unable to attend in-person still feel like they’re a part of the class and not just watching it on their computer screens was important, Bruce said.

“For many of my students, this is the first college course they’ve ever taken,” he explained. “Doing it this way has been a lot more difficult, but I honestly believe it’s what the students need to get as much normalcy out of the semester as possible.”

It was only toward the end of the spring semester that Bruce began to realize how successful his efforts had been. The feedback he received from students was peppered with such comments as, “I have appreciated the form of interaction we have had in class even though it has been different than normal,” and “Having this class helps me feel a little more like a normal college student.” One student-athlete explained to him that his course was the only opportunity she had to get out of her dorm and meet people outside of her team. 

“She told me, ‘this is my favorite class,” he said with a laugh. “‘I mean, it’s my only class, but it’s still my favorite!’”

—Written by Alex Hood