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March 18, 2010

View From Outside the Classroom

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by Jocelyn Cilik & Tom Misuraca

Student life programming complements classroom learning

Students heading out to hear a concert, ice skate with friends at Schenley Park, listen to a presentation by cake master Duff Goldman or participate in a book club might view the activities simply as fun social events.

But research has shown that students who connect quickly with their peers, faculty and university are more likely to succeed in the classroom and return to school the following year.

Student life programming is serious business, even if the events being staged appear to be lighthearted and fun.

At Pitt, the First Year Experience (FYE) Office and the Pitt Program Council (PPC) develop programs that help students make those valuable connections to peers, faculty and the University. FYE conducts an elaborate six-day orientation program in the fall, as well as programs during the year that help students get connected, engage in activities, become culturally aware and build relationships with their peers, staff and faculty.

One such program, the First Year Cup (FYCup), is a friendly competition that encourages first-year students to compete on residence hall and commuter teams. By attending select programs that are educational and social, students are awarded points for their team; the group with the highest percentage of attendance wins the FYCup trophy. The competition creates a sense of unity among team members, and introduces students to departments and services within Student Affairs, such as the Career Development Office, Cross Cultural and Leadership Development and Student Health Services.

PPC not only provides programs and events that entertain students, but also gives students opportunities to plan events from start to finish. In each program students learn skills in team building, conflict management, decision-making strategies, time management, budgeting, marketing and negotiating, as well as how to motivate and work with volunteers. The life skills students learn through PPC programs benefit them in the classroom as well as in their careers.

PPC also offers students the opportunity to learn about themselves in fun and creative ways. On the surface, Duff Goldman’s speech seemed like it was about cake decorating and being a television celebrity. But what students really heard was an inspirational story about finding yourself, following a path in life that makes you happy and being true to yourself. Such lessons are an integral part of students’ development during their time here at Pitt. When students have a clear sense of self, it helps them to choose the correct major and excel in the classroom.

In addition to these Student Life programs, Pitt’s Outside the Classroom Curriculum (OCC) provides a structured way for students to get connected and receive a well-rounded education. Faculty and staff from across the University can have their supplemental programs, such as guest lecturers or symposia, included in OCC to further enhance the educational experience for all students. OCC is a University-wide initiative designed to educate the whole student through the completion of a series of programs, activities and experiences that complement each student’s academic studies.

Derived from the provost’s goals for University graduates, the curriculum engages students as they grow in nine key areas each year, while progressively completing a host of learning experiences outside the classroom. Students are required to attend a specific number of events that foster growth in the following areas:

• Leadership development;

• Sense of self;

• Career preparation;

• University participation;

• Communication skills;

• Respect for diversity;

• Healthy lifestyle;

• Service to others, and

• Appreciation for the arts.

Students who complete the requirements of the program receive an OCC “transcript” that documents their achievements outside the classroom, as well as a green cord of distinction to wear at graduation. These students can point to tangible accomplishments achieved during their undergraduate careers when they apply to graduate and professional schools or interview with prospective employers.

Pitt’s rising freshman retention rate — it went from 83 percent in 1996 to 92.7 percent this year — is proof that these Student Affairs programs are working. In order for students to be successful in the classroom and in their chosen fields of study, they need to feel connected to the University and the environment here. The programs developed in the Student Life Office help students achieve success in the classroom by helping them feel more connected to the University.

Jocelyn Cilik is coordinator of the First Year Experience program. For more information about FYE, contact her at

Tom Misuraca is assistant director of Student Life. For more information about the Pitt Program Council, contact him at

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