Wagner believes that Learning Communities are integral to the success of Wagner students, and they are a key component of the Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts. The learning communities are a set of thematically linked courses in which students stay with the same cohort, learning and growing together. Students complete three Learning Communities prior to graduation: the First Year, Intermediate, and Senior Learning Communities. The First Year Learning Community consists of two general education courses, and a Reflective Tutorial (RFT), which share a common theme like “The Love-Hate Relationships Between Human, Microbes, and Chemicals” or “Exploring the Hispanic World through Language and Film.” Courses share common readings and assignments, allowing students to engage with the material in multiple ways. The intimate Reflective Tutorials, which are generally capped at twelve to fourteen students, allow students to focus on their writing skills while working on course work. Professor Eshleman notes that the First Year Program “creates a strong connection between faculty members and students.” Teachers in the program advise twenty-four new students in the first semester. The small group size and consistent contact create a bond between students and faculty that “carries through the undergraduate experience,” she says. Amanda Bailey, a 2007 graduate in English, tells us, “You’re set up for a really great relationship with your adviser for the next four years.”
Students who have this kind of initial support are less likely to flounder during their first year, and feel more engaged with the academic community. And that engagement goes beyond the academic community. Experiential learning is also a big part of the Learning Communities, which link coursework to fieldwork. Students are placed in field sites where they are able to gain hands-on experience by researching, engaging with, and analyzing various projects and Donald Stearns, professor of biology, told us about his class’s hands-on approach to research into water pollution in Toms River, New Jersey: “In Toms River, students interviewed cancer victims, relatives of cancer victims, officials of corporations named in the lawsuit, attorneys, developers, and other citizens concerned about the Toms River situation. In Trenton, the students interviewed Toms River experts from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; they also toured a water analysis facility used by the state to chemically analyze drinking water. In Manhattan, they interviewed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency federal experts overseeing the cleanup operations at the two Superfund sites in Toms River….By bearing witness to the drama unfolding in Toms River, the students came to understand the complexity of a real environmental/human health issue in the community.” As you can see, the courses cover a variety of topics and offer something for every student.
The Intermediate Learning Community may be taken at any time between the first and final year, and emphasizes “learning by doing.” Students advance their writing skills, engage in challenging research, and complete a final project that includes a written or an oral presentation.
The Senior Learning Community includes a 100-hour experiential learning component—which gives students invaluable experience in their discipline in a professional setting and professional contacts—and a substantive written project and presentation, in addition to coursework. The Learning Communities frequently participate in off campus activities ranging from community engagement to research. These opportunities for “real-world” involvement and career exploration are known to correlate with career success. The typical graduating seniors is “remarkably more comfortable engaging in thoughtful discussions about complex ideas,” and is a “notably more confident writer within the major discipline,” says Professor Eshleman, in no small part due to the Learning Communities.
Students are also able to get out of the classroom and out from behind the computer to study abroad via Wagner’s Expanding Your Horizons program, which offers students the opportunity to take a course that incorporates short, ten- to twelve-day international or domestic faculty-led trips. The courses prepare students before the trip and allow them to process and apply what they have learned afterward. Rose Tobiassen, a 2012 graduate in anthropology, tells us that experiential learning opportunities like the Expanding Your Horizons program “was a big draw” when it came to deciding between colleges. She explains, “I knew that I wanted a hands on educational experience, and while I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to study when I started college, I knew that I wanted to be exposed to a lot of different places and experiences. Specifically, the Expanding your Horizons program interested in me in that it offered experiences abroad in unique places.” In 2015, students went to Bangladesh, where they studied environmental health; Mexico, where they studied art and culture in San Miguel de Allende; Germany and Poland, where they studied Nazism and the Holocaust; and Senegal, where they studied the “Transatlantic Triangle: From Harlem Renaissance, Paris’ Negritude Movement To Nationalism & Independence of Africa.”
At Wagner, 26 percent of students have studied abroad by their senior year. For Rose Tobiassen, who is program and operations coordinator with the Clinton Global Initiative, study away in Kenya was a future-making experience. “I was unsure of what I wanted to study when I started college, and my very first anthropology class changed all of that. The discipline fascinated me and it was an area of academics that catered to all of my strengths. I had a fantastic supervisor, who was also my anthropology professor, who helped expose me to so many of the different facets of the discipline, and she helped me look at the many ways I could translate my anthropology degree and skills into exciting careers that I would be passionate about. My experience in Kenya was what inspired me to pursue international development,” she explains.
Wagner has a student to faculty ratio of 14:1, and boasts 221 faculty members, including ninety-eight full-time and 128 part-time faculty members. And 90 percent of full-time faculty members have the highest degree in their field. Students find faculty members to be engaged, approachable, and helpful. “My professors are all willing to help out the students in and out of the classroom,” says a nursing major. “It is comforting that I can go to my professors whenever I need assistance with work.” Professor Stearns can attest to the close relationship that Wagner students and faculty share. He explains: “As the experiential coordinator for environmental issues, I serve as a mentor for students, regardless of major, who want to somehow include their interest in the environment within their academic program, or who wish to pursue an off-campus experience such as an environmental internship. Far from serving as a mere referral agency, I meet with each student individually, discuss his/her interests and work with the student to shape together the experience that approaches his/her personal goal.”
And at Wagner College the faculty are very involved in the curriculum. Nick Richardson, associate professor of chemistry, says that “the faculty is highly involved in the creation of majors and program, with the administration giving support when needed. In fact, all changes to programs, or the creation of new programs comes from the faculty.” Faculty members are also very engaged with the community, modeling the very type of civic engagement they seek to instill in their students. For instance, Dr. Margarita Sánchez, an associate professor of Modern Languages, created an afterschool program for children of Hispanic immigrants, and encouraged her students to volunteer (and many of them did!). She also developed a relationship with El Centro del Inmigrante in Port Richmond and has volunteered at the Center and recruited students to work as volunteers. Faculty members also regularly collaborate with students on research that leads to presentations at international conferences and publications. In fact, 41 percent of students will conduct research with a faculty member outside of class assignments, giving them access to invaluable hands-on experience.