New Kids on the Block
They Made it to UNH—now will they make it through their first year?

LAST OCTOBER HURRICANE WILMA was bearing down on the Northeast, with three storms slamming into New England simultaneously. As I drove toward Durham to meet freshmen for this story, 50-mile-an-hour gusts jerked the family minivan across traffic lanes and I mused about wild catastrophic forces either unseen or unheeded, the desire to drive straight, and the nagging sense of feeling Lilliputian-sized in a Gulliver-sized world.

George Bell '09
He's not afraid to say he gets riled up sometimes.

Driving on Interstate 95 in a Nor'easter is, in fact, a lot like being a first-semester freshman. I remembered my own experience 25 years ago as a UNH freshman, and it was not pretty.

In hoping for the best for my children while quietly recalling my personal worst, I am apparently not alone. A fellow soccer parent told me about her eldest, now a college freshman. "You're welcome to ask my son about his experiences," she kindly offered. "Just don't tell me what he said."

I had read the startling statistics. Nationally, a quarter of all college students leave before completing their sophomore year, and nearly half of this country's Class of 2009 will either drop out before getting their degree, or get it elsewhere. At UNH, the number of baccalaureate students who drop out is 15 percent. This fall, UNH's freshman class hit a record high of some 2,800 students, almost 60 percent of them female. It was sobering—perhaps a poor word choice—to contemplate hundreds of them exiting Durham by the same time next year.

So, looked at broadly, there is a window to reach and retain first year students. It is a window that is not only small but is exposed to hostilities of all types: chemistry midterms, meathead roommates and inexplicably bad karma.

To UNH's credit, there is increasing recognition of the frailty of the freshman experience and a determination to do something about it. The effort at UNH encompasses diverse resources, including the "Ask a Wildcat" service which offers a virtual advice panel, and weekly dorm discussion groups during the months of October and November involving hot-button topics like sexual harassment, alcohol and academics. Comprehensive orientation exercises, such as dormitory sleepovers, help ease the transition. But newest of all is the effort to engage freshmen intellectually. Intellectual stimulation is something I can't recall during my freshman year, but times, it seems, have changed.

Jeffrey Kaste '09
Kaste is so overjoyed he throws out his oversized throwing arm and comes within a whisker of socking the person next to him. "Oops, sorry about that," he says.

AT A BASEMENT LEVEL classroom in Hamilton Smith, a dark-haired, broad-shouldered New Haven, Conn., freshman named George Bell is standing before his peers, explaining his group's policy for federal oversight on stem-cell research. He cites medical studies and scientific research in summarizing a policy that would ban stem cells for cloning purposes and restrict their availability but would usher in a new era by promoting international cooperation and instructing the National Institutes of Health to fast track research funding.

Professor David Hiley, a former UNH provost and the architect of this freshman-only bioethics class, looks on contemplatively, like Ted Koppel at an ABC town meeting. At the semester's start, Hiley had challenged the students to create a national policy for stem cell research, one of the nation's most divisive issues. The students were asked to confront the question of whether an embryo should be granted moral status. They were asked whether the potential benefits of stem-cell research outweighed moral reservations. "I was on the fence," Bell told me later, "but a big requirement of the class is having an opinion and supporting it."

Now Hiley wants to know if the competing advocacies in the room—there is a moratorium group and a free-market group—are okay with George. Do the free-market anti-governments have a retort? Do the moratorium types want a piece of him? And how about the moral hardliners, what do they think?

"What happens if a new administration comes into office and shuts everything down?" asks Jason Yee, part of the beleaguered moratorium group huddled by the doorway. "Government can't guarantee policy until the people decide one way or the other. We're saying that if we stop and take the time to educate people we'll get a national consensus and it won't matter what the president thinks."

GEORGE: "What if the people don't care?"

JASON: "That's why we're budgeting money to educate them."

Jason looks at George. George at Jason. Stuff is swirling outside the ground-level window. It could be leaves, maybe snow. The bottom halves of bodies slop somewhere in a wind-blown hurry. George and the other 23 freshmen in the room are right here, however, fearlessly in the moment. "Fair enough," concedes George, and the room's collective tension releases like air from a pressurized balloon. The Moratoriums are born again. They high-five, having lived to fight another day.

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