by Annie Dubois

Four MSU students study at a small table.At a university that boasts an enormous student body of 50,000, making first-year students feel a sense of belonging is crucial. Undergraduate Studies (UGS) courses are intentionally designed to foster a sense of belonging and provide new students with the tools they need to succeed at MSU.

UGS seminars range across an array of course options. UGS 102 and 103 typically offer study abroad and study away opportunities for first-year students the summer before they begin at MSU, while UGS 101 and 110 are offered on campus during the regular academic year. Although the courses vary in content, they center around the same idea: ensuring Spartans get started on the right track with robust academic experiences.

UGS seminars like UGS 101 are typically one-credit courses that help students explore a topic of interest in depth. This opportunity is particularly useful for first-year students who come into the university unsure about their major or academic interests. Most undergraduate students also end up changing their major at least once, so providing first and second-year students an opportunity to explore a range of interests is pivotal.

UGS 101 course content spans a variety of topics, from entrepreneurship and innovation to virtual reality, but all classes are designed to give students an exploratory experience through the completion of immersive projects.

“What makes a seminar a high impact educational experience is when you’re asking students to not just remember and understand content but do something with what they’ve learned,” said Nate Clason, coordinator of campus-based seminars in the Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education.

UGS 101 class sizes are intentionally small as well, maxing out around 20 students per course. Having a smaller class size helps achieve a tight-knit community classroom where students have more opportunities to engage with each other and the professor. Oftentimes, participation in small classes is organic. But in some cases, a participation component is part of the grading rubric, which can give shy students an academic premise for engaging with their peers. This ultimately helps drive the socialization so crucial to a sense of belonging as students arrive on campus. 

“Having a sense of belonging is really complex and interwoven,” said Clason. “If [students] don’t feel like they belong in their discipline of study or the classroom, that will get in the way of a broader sense of belonging. That’s where UGS 101 really can be valuable to students …. they’re connecting with the professor and they’re working on a project, and they produce something meaningful, and that contributes to belonging.”

Another, sometimes-overlooked aspect of UGS 101 classes is the agency they give first-year students. University curriculum begins with many required classes. Depending upon their chosen major, some students may get a healthy dose of elective and major-related education early in their tenure. But for many students, including those who are unsure of their chosen area of study, UGS 101 courses offer in-the-field, immersive looks at entire disciplines, e.g., UGS 101 Green Chemistry provides students with a crash course on chemistry fundamentals and includes fieldwork in small groups. This is a valuable way of acquainting students with chemistry well enough to give them an idea of whether they would like to pursue it further.  

Although only one credit, UGS courses often have a long-standing impact on students, leaving them with a sense of belonging, more motivation to engage in their classes, and a strong sense of academic direction.