Consider the Big Ten Experience

If you think smaller is better, you may want another look.

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First year seminars are another way that big schools are encouraging closer freshmen-faculty interaction, which is seen as key to strengthening student ties to the school but often doesn't happen at large research institutions with intro classes of 400. While some seminars are meant to help students develop study skills, others let them explore a subject in depth in a small group while getting close to a professor. The First Year Discovery Program at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, for example, limits class size to 19. Freshmen can pick one class from among some 75 offerings, from advertising to urban planning.

Yet another avenue for making academic work especially meaningful and building relationships takes students into the community beyond the campus. The University of Minnesota, for instance, partners with hundreds of nonprofits in the Twin Cities area so the Community Engagement Scholars can earn credit in a variety of service-learning courses, which marry classwork with fieldwork, as they gain experience in areas from helping abuse victims or immigrants to promoting affordable housing.

Sometimes finding the right connection happens naturally. Ryan Wiens, who grew up just north of Columbus, Ohio, found his in that Ohio State marching band—a group he had aspired to since elementary school. "From the first day you make band, for the next two weeks you spend at least seven hours a day together, whether at practice or on weekends hanging out," he says. His fellow sousaphone players, he adds, are the "closest friends I have on campus." The June graduate in zoology (with a music minor) is returning this fall, as permitted, for a fifth year with the band. And chances are he'll pass the audition. Last November he had the high honor, at the game against archrival Michigan, of "dotting the 'i'" in script Ohio.

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