Cohort and Community

First-year programs take on new significance during pandemic year

s the lead peer advisor in Paul College’s First-year Innovation and Research Experience (FIRE) program, Drew Siemering ’21 covers a lot of topics with new students. Often, the questions he fields reflect classic first-year nerves: Will I fit in here? Did I make the right decision? But in a matter of weeks, students in the FIRE program are diving deeper into their college experiences — using FIRE’s competition model to earn points by learning more about opportunities and resources at UNH, exploring which majors and academic programs they might pursue and getting hands-on professional development training in things like resumes and LinkedIn profiles.

“FIRE sets up students for success. I still reference things my own peer advisor shared with me freshman year, and I hope I’m doing the same for this year’s freshmen,” says Siemering, who will graduate in May with dual business administration degrees in finance and information systems/business analytics.

Now in its sixth year, FIRE is a yearlong game-based experience for first-year students in UNH’s undergraduate business program, who earn points individually and in teams via activities and challenges. The idea is to get them involved in campus life while also teaching problem-solving skills and building career development habits.

The idea of first-year programs — which provide an academic and personal bridge from high school and play a role in student retention — has gained traction at UNH in recent years. Advisors across the university have been exchanging ideas and plans, tailoring programming to fit the needs of particular colleges and areas of study.

“First-year programs really are best-practices these days in higher education,” says Mary Beth Carstens, academic affairs coordinator for the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS). Carstens launched CHHS’s Academic and Career Engagement (ACE) program in 2017.

ACE gives first-year students personalized academic and career coaching, connects them with peer and alumni mentors and fosters a sense of camaraderie within the college. Originally only for undeclared freshman, the program now includes tracks for communication science and disorders and occupational therapy majors (both of which also add a faculty mentor to the mix).

FIRE sets up students for success. I still reference things my own peer advisor shared with me freshman year, and I hope I’m doing the same for this year’s freshmen.”
—Drew Siemering ’21
These types of programs took on new significance this academic year, amidst the pandemic. In Paul College, keeping the FIRE class in-person kept students connected and learning. Donor philanthropy played a major role, as well, with students making great use of the LinkedUp app, created with support from donors Tim Collins ’85 and his wife, Emily ’89. This year, LinkedUp included a health check-in (where students could track actions taken to stop the spread of COVID-19) in addition to its long roster of campus resources like the library and the Career and Professional Success office, as well as student organizations to join. Bailey Shippee ’24 is among the students who found the app helpful in making connections on campus her first semester.

“I’ll walk into a class and just say out loud, ‘Anyone in the FIRE program? Link up with me,’ and we’ll pull out our phones and get on the app,” says Shippee. “I feel so connected to the whole university, even though I’ve been here such a short time. I would not have survived freshman year without the FIRE program.”

Sean Stewart, assistant director of undergraduate programs at Paul, says he’s been hearing the same feedback from other current participants.

“Because of the pandemic, there just weren’t that many options for students to meet each other and get to know each other, so FIRE provided a valuable opportunity for connection,” he says, noting that the program received its best ratings from participants this year.

In CHHS, Carstens hopes to expand the ACE program, as enrollment in the college is increasing and projected to continue in that direction. In the fall, a nursing track will be rolled out.

“First-year experience programs are all about student success. For us, it’s making sure the transition from high school to college is intentional,” she says. “We’re putting a structure in place for students to be able to thrive — here at UNH and in whatever career path they may choose.”

— Michelle Morrissey ’97