Course helps new students feel they belong

People carrying surfboards.

Hainan University-Arizona State University International Tourism College students learn how to surf to connect and build relationships in their U-FIRST class in the fall semester. Photo by Nate Bricker/ASU


College poses a variety of challenges to new students.

Within the first few weeks, they’re coping with unfamiliar surroundings, people and academic requirements — not to mention the ongoing pressure of fitting in, connecting with instructors and making friends.

ASU Project Manager Nate Bricker noted these issues occurring at the Hainan University-Arizona State University International Tourism College (HAITC) in Hainan, China, and decided to do something about it. He introduced an outdoor engagement course in fall 2023 called “U-FIRST: Nature and the Human Spirit” to 32 HAITC students. It was the first time the course was taught at ASU.

First-year students who took the course started as strangers, Bricker said, but finished it as friends and colleagues. They spent less time in dorms and on cellphones and more time in outdoor recreational and volunteer activities.

Students said the fresh-air experiences brought them out of their shells and improved their communication skills, particularly in English, a second language to the mostly Asian HAITC student body.

“Before I started this course, I was a very introverted person. I didn't like talking to strangers and was very afraid to make friends with others,” wrote one student, responding to requests for anonymous course reactions. “But after I finished the course, I found that I seemed to become better at interacting with people than before. I (left) behind the fear of communication. I can take the initiative to communicate with others, and I can quickly fit into a strange, new environment and find my company in the new environment. This is a great help to me.”

Parents express concerns about isolation

Bricker and his colleagues first devised a “Wilderness with Honors” program at the University of Utah, where they expanded an existing outdoor education program for students within a more traditional academic structure. The program gave students unique opportunities to connect with others and taught them how to adjust to college life on their own terms, he said. Students also simultaneously developed a stronger sense of place and connection to their new university community and natural environment.

Bricker and his wife, Kelly, who is a full professor in ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development and the HAITC director, arrived at ASU in 2022. The school and HAITC are in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.      

Kelly Bricker said that parents she met worried their HAITC students were having difficulty adjusting to college life and were not getting out and building social connections. Students she heard from also cited the adjustment issue as important to them.

With the full support of Watts College Dean Cynthia Lietz, the first “U-FIRST” pilot program was developed to see if it could work as well in Hainan, China, as it had in Utah.

“Based on what students have communicated, the course exceeded all expectations,” Kelly said.

Nate Bricker said he and Kelly retooled the program for Hainan’s setting on an island just off the coast of the South China Sea.

The course began with a team-building exercise, putting students in male-female pairs. “We had to bring men and women together,” he said. “Guys tend to rally around guys and girls around girls. We paired them up in male-female pairs, which was kind of fun to watch them feel more comfortable over time.”

Next came a sailing unit that built on the theme of teamwork. Each student had responsibilities on the boat.

‘You couldn’t get them off those surfboards’

“After sailing, we did a surfing program, which was the biggest confidence-builder. Many of the students had never been in the ocean,” Nate Bricker said. “It was the first time for many getting into the water and interacting with nature. Some came into the experience saying, ‘I don’t like this, I don’t swim well, I’m not a water person.’ But by the end of it, out of 32 students, we had only a few students who really chose not to surf that day.”

It didn’t take too much time riding the waves for the students to become comfortable interacting with one another and the ocean environment.

For those that did engage, “you couldn’t get them off those surfboards,” Nate said. “They were seeing a new part of this massive country they live in, interacting with nature and seeing how important it was to their lives — physically, psychologically and environmentally.” 

Another student said initial apprehensions vanished, even though it took several attempts to remain upright on a surfboard.

“I had never tried surfing before, so I was afraid that I could not do well in this sport and make many mistakes. The fact was that I fell into the water again and again, actually,” the student wrote. “However, I made up my mind to do a great job, so I tried again and again instead of giving up and getting back to the beach. Fortunately, I stood on the board successfully at last. This fantastic experience made me realize that if I wanted to succeed in one thing, I must work hard without fear of difficulties. I might fail often, but I always found the way to success in these failures.”

The activities didn’t stop with merely fulfilling class requirements. After learning about giving first aid, they became certified in CPR. And a lesson in respecting the place they had become part of led to a beach cleanup exercise. Then, the students took their experience a step further.

“They formed a first-responders club based on the students providing support in first aid and CPR for a range of college community events, as well as created an ongoing beach cleanup club to give something back to their greater Hainan community,” Nate said.

The class outings, lectures and materials taught another student about the power of empathy.

“I have discovered that by putting myself in others' shoes and genuinely understanding their perspectives, I can build stronger connections and have more meaningful interactions,” the student wrote. “This newfound understanding of the importance of empathy is something I hope to carry with me for the rest of my life. It has not only enriched my relationships but also allowed me to navigate difficult situations with compassion and understanding.”

Course could work elsewhere at ASU

Kelly Bricker said she and her husband believe the course could work at ASU’s Arizona campuses. Many first-year college students in the United States also don’t come out of their shells, many taking two or more years to get there, she said.

“And that’s the tragedy,” she said. “By the time they realize their full potential and the benefits provided by their expanded college community, they only have a year or two left, and they missed experiences and opportunities they could have had otherwise. U-FIRST-type programming enhances a student’s opportunity to be their better selves and get more out of the education they’re receiving.”

Students in U-FIRST became more comfortable asking questions and just having fun, Kelly said.

“We began the class in utter silence, where no one wanted to talk or share much of anything, to being out of their shells and excited to discuss what their futures held and how they were the ‘way finders’ of what was to come,” Kelly said.

“What you have taught us is not only knowledge, but also methods of thinking and problem-solving skills,” wrote another student. “I will cherish these gains and continue to work hard to learn and grow. Thank you again for your concern and support, respected teachers. You are like lighthouses on the sea, pointing the way for me to move forward.”

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