UTA Magazine
These freshmen have it all FIGured out

Mark Permenter

They cruised through the lobby in twos and threes—sometimes in larger groups—immersed in topics typical of first-semester freshmen.

“How’d you do on that test?” one asked.

“You should go talk to that guy,” urged another.

The setting was Kalpana Chawla Hall, UTA’s newest residence hall named for the alumna and astronaut who died in 2003 aboard the space shuttle Columbia. KC, as residents call the facility, opened last fall with 421 beds and a menu of amenities that would make many hotels envious.

To my surprise, some of the students recognized me as I sat on a couch near a wall honoring the building’s namesake. I had attended several of their classes and interviewed more than a dozen of them for this issue’s cover story. But don’t freshmen have more important things on their minds?

Like surviving in an academic climate much more rigorous than high school. Like making friends, adjusting to roommates and being away from home for the first time. Like navigating a campus that, in some cases, has more students than their hometown has people.

Many college neophytes face these challenges alone. Not this group.

All KC Hall residents are members of a learning community, a group of students housed near each other according to major or academic interest. About a third are members of a freshman interest group (FIG), a more intimate cadre of students who take several courses together and have access to faculty, staff and peer mentors.

Most of the nine residential FIGs introduced at UTA last fall have 10-20 members. Nationally, the concept is said to have increased graduation and retention rates. Administrators here hope for similar results down the road.

What I observed is that FIGs have built close-knit communities of students who study and have fun together. Every student I spoke with echoed this: They love having friends to lean on for academic support and to just hang out with. And they’re not sure they would have developed such a comfort zone outside the FIG program.

“Living and learning with each other has created a strong bond for all of us,” said Frank Perera of the honors FIG. “Being in a FIG is one of the best decisions you can make about your college career. It’s like being in a family of friends.”

Back in the lobby, two freshmen strolled by. “So do you want to study together at, like, 7:30 tonight?” asked one. “Sure,” said the other.

It’s a common exchange among students in KC Hall—one that bodes well for the University’s future. And theirs.

— Mark Permenter

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