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My Commons Seminar: How a One-Hour Course Changed My Life

Posted by on Sunday, April 13, 2014 in Academics, College Life, Freshman Life, Professors, Speakers, Study Abroad.

When I was planning my courses for this spring and met with my CASPAR advisor (see my post from this winter when I discussed the full registration process), I was trying to figure out how to have a balanced, challenging but manageable course-load for this semester. I was trying to decide between taking 13 hours or 16 hours, neither of which really thrilled me due to the demands of my required lab and 4 definite courses and my conflicting desire to be pushed.

My advisor advised me to find a Commons Seminar to take. Essentially, these are 1-hour courses capped at 15 students open only to freshmen that vary in topic from French cuisine to how we learn to read. They meet once every week or every other week, depending on the class session schedule. It sounded like a great compromise, so I signed up for one. While I was fascinated by so many of them (I mean look at this list. How could I go wrong?), I ultimately settled on one that fit nicely into my schedule and looked particularly compelling—Making Connections: Leadership and Scholarship, Curriculum and Career.

I didn’t know exactly what this class would entail, but I had absolutely no idea what I want to do with my 3.5 years left at Vanderbilt or my life after that. I hoped that this class would provide me with an opportunity to reflect upon this and some methods to start piecing my future together.

This is not my class, but this size and the happy and open vibe is characteristic of commons seminars.

What I found was so much better. In the 10 weeks that this course met for, my small class made life maps, talked about leadership, heard firsthand from our Center for Student Professional Development, Office of Active Citizenship and Service, and Global Education Offices’ directors, planned our hypothetical futures at Vanderbilt out, and wrote a reflective personal statement. And somehow we managed to do so much more.

Here's the life map I made in class.

For an hour and fifteen minutes each Tuesday afternoon, I got to sit in a room with my peers and our fabulous professor and talk about important qualities and experiences, get real life advice, and ponder my/our future(s). It was a dream come true. We read editorials each week and wrote brief reflections (for some examples, see here, here or here) and had extensive in-class, personal discussions. And our three major assignments may have been the most challenging and also rewarding of my entire first year at Vanderbilt.

First off, we were to contact and meet with a professor individually to discuss their lives, work, advice for us and whatever else we wanted. I met with my Neuroscience professor and basically then and there decided to major in neuroscience and to apply for research positions for next fall. And she has helped me with that entire process (keep your eyes peeled for a future post about this process alone.)

Next, we were each tasked with compiling a “College Action Plan,” aka a detailed plan for the rest of our time at Vanderbilt, complete with specific class lists for each semester, clubs we wanted to be involved in, summer plans and anything else relevant to our lives. I spent twelve hours on this. After making nine lists, consulting countless upperclassmen and professors, and deeply considering my goals and dreams, I drew up a legitimate plan for the rest of my college experience. I made decisions that I had been struggling with since the beginning of high school, and I started to truly appreciate the breadth of opportunities offered at Vanderbilt.

Lastly, we each had to write a personal statement, the same kind that you might write for graduate school or scholarship applications. This was exactly the kind of reflection that was the hallmark of this class, and it was empowering to know what I want and appeal to some hypothetical committee, vocalizing my aspirations and corresponding qualifications.

This one-hour class that I added to my YES cart as an after-thought was the most impactful classroom experience I have had thus far at Vanderbilt, and it speaks volumes about the school that it is willing to encourage students to pursue such thought-provoking, introspective experiences. Furthermore, the fact that I was one of 15 students in a class lead by a Rhodes Scholar, professor of graduate-level physics and director of the Office of Honors Scholarships is indicative of the level of dedication that I have found to be typical of Vanderbilt professors and the University as a whole.

Anchor Down, y’all. It’s been the best decision of my life.

Sorry this post was long, but this is actually the abridged version. Email me if you want to hear more about this experience or anything about Vanderbilt at all really.

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