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Program acquaints Eckerd freshmen with college life, expectations

ST. PETERSBURG — First-year students at Eckerd College have to report early. They’re in class before upperclassmen show up on campus. They even have class on a Saturday.

Yet none of them are complaining about a mandatory three-week Autumn Term.

“Honestly, I think it’s probably the best way to dive into college as a freshman,” said Nick Bernabe, an international business major from Des Moines, Iowa. “I’m 1,400 miles away from home. If I’m overloaded with stuff to do, with class schedules and all that in one or two days, that’s a little overwhelming. I think to spread it out over three weeks is absolutely brilliant.”

As about 1,800 students begin the first day of Eckerd’s fall term this week, the 500 freshmen such as Bernabe have just completed Autumn Term, a program designed to acclimate the newbies to the college experience.

“It’s based on the premise that it takes more for what’s essentially a high school senior to be ready for college work and residential life on a college campus,” said Margie Sanfilippo, associate dean of faculty at Eckerd.

It’s hardly boot camp: There are parties, field trips and activities that take advantage of Eckerd’s signature waterfront. But the new students are required to take their first college course while getting an idea of what is expected of them in terms of homework, tests, writing competency and projects. They attend workshops on such topics as drug and alcohol use, diversity and sexual responsibility.

“We try to provide resources and forums for discussion of the kinds of issues that arise as high schoolers transition into college students and are faced with having to navigate newfound freedom on a number of levels,” said James Annarelli, vice president for student life and dean of students.

The worst-case scenario is for students to become so shell-shocked by the change in environment that they give up.

Carly Gilmore, a psychology and human development major from Burbank, Calif., said friends at other campuses have complained to her about the overwhelming experience of being thrust into college life unprepared.

“I haven’t felt overwhelmed at all,” said Gilmore. “It may have been a little less of a load than it will be next week, but at least we’ve had the experience.”

She said the non-classroom activities also helped with what she called “the homesickness factor.”

“A lot of us are from far away,” she said. “They fill you up with fun activities so you want to be here and you’re not sitting in your room saying, ‘I want to go home.’ ”

Parents are involved, too. During the Aug. 10-11 move-in weekend for freshmen, there were workshops and discussions on such topics as Long Distance Parenting and Successful Power Shifting. Parents received a family’s guide to the first-year experience with advice such as, “Reassure your student that feeling a little overwhelmed is normal for new students learning to manage academic demands and new personal responsibilities.”

The freshman program has received national attention. In the 2005 book “Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First Year of College,” Eckerd is considered an Institute of Excellence and was recognized as one of 13 colleges and universities that place a high priority on the first-year experience.

Sadie Schulte, a new environmental studies major who also hails from Des Moines, has now experienced what a priority it is.

“They call it ‘Eckerd community,’ they call it ‘Eckerd family,’ they don’t call it Eckerd College,” Schulte said. “How do you not feel welcome? You are being welcomed into a community, not just a school, and they succeed in making you feel a part of it.”

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