First-year students engage in campus values through essay contest

By Chelsea Cabral, Staff Writer

As a new academic year begins, it’s common for incoming students to join in a first-year book project as an introduction to academic life.

UMass Dartmouth, on the other hand, took a different route in terms of engaging new students in campus values with a blog project called “This We Believe.”

The campus project was modeled after NPR’s This I Believe, a popular program that engaged listeners in discussions on the core beliefs that led their everyday lives—comprised of personal narratives from people of all walks of life.

As of today, more than 125,000 essays have been written, recorded, and archived on the This I Believe website, along with being recounted in several books as well.

Professor Meghan Fair, who coordinated the university blog alongside previous Professor Anicca Cox, found the project to be a great vehicle for generating conversations about the values that comprise our campus community, especially among incoming students.

“We wanted students to find a way not only into college life but also into engaged citizenship, where they could say something that mattered to them, and place it into a context of what matters to our community,” says Fair.

In the project’s third year, incoming students were given the task to engage with one another on the campus blog about issues that resonated with students both personally and as a community.

Students composed 250-word blog posts to be posted within the ten different categories on the blog, ranging from gender inequality to athletics, to family life, to love, and more.

“I reminded them that they are writing for an audience of their peers and that it was their first entrance into college community life,” Fair states. “If you frame it in the context of an ongoing conversation of what other people believe, that makes it a discussion worth having.”

With over 33,000 blog views and more than 1,150 comments, the university blog showcased the power of dialogue within the campus community and how it values diversity, collaboration, and civic engagement.

“We thought it was a way for students to see themselves not just as incoming students, but as one with a powerful voice that will be heard by others,” says Fair.

A stark difference for this year’s summer blog project was breaking free from the typical custom of students reporting on a book they were appointed to read, as seen in previous years with the “This We Believe” project.

“I think getting rid of just reading a book and writing a book report was a smart move. Students became more engaged in this project,” explains Fair. “It was a chance for students to write something that didn’t feel forced. It’s much more organic to talk about ourselves and write about what matters to us.”

The main objective of the project was to compose a 500-word essay entailing the personal experiences and values that shape a student, including factors such as individual credos and life reflections.

Essays submitted by July 31 for the Provost’s essay contest, were put through a week-long selection process where the top three essayists were awarded cash prizes and had their essays showcased at Convocation.

With over 100 submissions by students, undeclared first-year students Alexandra Joseph and Kayci Richardson, both within the College of Arts & Sciences, and Sarah Murphy, first-year History major, won the top prizes. All three read their pieces at Student Convocation to kick off the academic year.

The project, however, was not shy to faculty and staff, as they also submitted essays such as Dean Riley’s “I Believe in the Value of the Liberal Arts Education,” Associate Professor Sarah Cosgrove’s “I Believe in Opportunity Costs,” and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs’ Cynthia Cummings’ “I Believe in Campus Activism.”

Currently, the top ten student essays and the faculty staff essays are on display in the Writing and Reading Center.


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