Freshman Interest Groups 1
Freshman Interest Groups at the University of Washington: Establishment, Ownership and Purpose
March 14, 2003
Freshman Interest Groups 2
Becoming one amongst 28,000 undergraduates can be intimidating and scary. The
thought of starting college and immersing oneself immediately into a university setting may even
be considered a major transition in life. With the goal of helping freshmen adapt to their new
environment, the University of Washington established the Freshman Interest Group (FIG)
program in 1987. The program began as an experimental one and has been growing and
continuing well into 2003, no longer an experiment but now a highly regarded program. From
2000 to 2001 I was part of this program, volunteering for two years as a FIG peer leader. My
involvement and interest in the FIG program inspired me to research its beginnings. This paper
will chronicle the establishment, departmental ownership and purpose of the Freshman Interest
Group program at the University of Washington.
Beginning in the late 1950‟s and continuing well into the year 2000, a nationwide trend
has been emerging in higher education, a trend that focuses on improving the first-year
experience of incoming freshman. In the spring of 1959 Harvard University faculty appointed a
committee to conduct “experiments designed to intensify the intellectual experience of the
freshman year” (“Freshman Seminar Program”, 2003). In 1962 the University of Notre Dame
established the First Year of Studies program to which all incoming first-year students are
admitted in order to help address their academic needs (“First Year of Studies”, 2003). And in
the 1970‟s the University of Washington began to take note of what was happening around the
country and also what was being said at home. Critics were attacking the University of
Washington for “ignoring undergraduate education and concentrating too hard on its research
mission” (Griffin, 2001). In addition, University officials began to notice that though advising
was helpful to incoming freshman, the lack of programs available was resulting
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in a floundering freshman class (R. Simkins, personal communication, February 18, 2003). One
of Washington‟s first attempts in focusing on first-year students was in 1971 with a residential
program called Freshman Clusters. The program involved students living together in a residence
hall with each other and sometimes even with their professors. According to the UW Advisor
Information File (1999), the program was scheduled for the whole year with the goal of assisting
freshmen in registering for courses, preferably the same courses. Yet students were not openly
receptive to the Freshman Clusters, opting not to join the program, and therefore causing its end
Inspiration for the University‟s next attempt to improve the freshman year experience
occurred when a group of Washington faculty and staff, including Richard Simkins, Director of
Undergraduate Advising in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Ken Tokuno, Director of
Advising in Sociology and an advisor in Undergraduate Advising, attended the National
Academic Advising Association (NACADA) regional conference at the University of Oregon in
1985. One of the seminars they attended was on the University of Oregon‟s Freshman Interest
Group program. Oregon‟s program, which was established in 1981, sought to provide solutions
to problems incoming freshmen faced. As stated in the 1986 Oregon FIG brochure:
We came up with the idea for Freshman Interest Groups (FIGs) when new
students told us of two concerns. One was choosing courses that met
requirements, were interesting, and formed a coherent schedule. Also, students
said they felt apprehensive about arriving on campus and becoming lost in the
crowd. FIGs have been helping students with both of these concerns for several
years – with excellent results (Bennett & Gerdes, 1983).
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Oregon and Washington, both large public institutions, seemed to face the same issues with their
incoming freshmen: how can you help approximately 5000 students register for the appropriate
courses and also feel at home in a new environment? Upon discovery of the program offered at
Oregon, Washington began to explore how FIGs could be adapted to the Seattle campus.
Upon arriving back at Washington, Simkins wrote a letter and provided materials, such as
a University of Oregon FIG program brochure, to David McCracken, Associate Dean in Arts and
Sciences and Simkins‟ direct supervisor. On July 18, 1986, McCracken wrote back to Simkins
and expressed his enthusiasm for implementing the program at Washington while also
highlighting another comparable program. McCracken writes, “I like the idea a great deal. It is
like the „Federated Learning Community‟ propagated by Provost Hill of Evergreen, but it has
much less faculty involvement…and is therefore cheaper” (McCracken, 1986). McCracken also
paid consideration to structure possibilities such as designating thirteen to fifteen credits, priority
registration, and whether or not to utilize peer advisers or faculty advisers. In a letter written on
August 19, 1986 to David McCracken from Tokuno, another consideration for the FIG program
arises: a new name. Names such as “Freshman Community Groups”, “Freshman Optional Core
and Undergraduate Seminar (F.O.C.U.S.), and “Freshman Integrated Quarter” were suggested by
McCracken. In the end, Washington stayed with the borrowed title from Oregon.
McCracken‟s involvement continued to be a force in the establishment of the FIG
program. In January of 1987 McCracken laid the groundwork for the FIG program in a letter he
wrote to Ernest M. Henley, the Dean of Arts and Sciences:
Form groups of three five-hour courses that are somehow related, call them
„interest groups‟ (or perhaps something else – the earlier UW name was clusters),
get twenty freshman to take the courses in common, and provide some kind of
Freshman Interest Groups 5
glue which will bind them together intellectually as well as socially (McCracken,
He also suggested that one of the three courses be an English composition course, which was
already a requirement, yet limited to relatively few students. In addition to the structure,
McCracken also proposed that the glue to hold the group together would be in the form of two
persons: a peer advisor to lead a weekly meeting and a faculty member, preferably one who
would be teaching one of the FIG‟s classes, to also meet with and mentor the group.
McCracken also tackled the initial budget proposals for the implementation and running
of the FIG program. In recruiting peer advisors, he suggested that they “could either pay them
hourly wages or possibly consider giving some kind of academic credit” (McCracken, 1987). He
also suggested raising some funds to make coffee and snacks available at the peer advisor
meetings, and wrote that training for peer advisors would be a small expense. A director who
would be in charge of organizing and looking after the program could be provided some release
time from teaching. And finally advertising to let prospective freshman know about the program
would also not be expensive (McCracken, 1987).
Once McCracken had laid the foundation for the FIG program, Arts and Sciences began
to seriously consider its implementation. On January 21, 1987, Dean Henley invited six
individuals to sit on a committee and determine if the FIG program was feasible. He also
requested a plan on how to implement FIGs at Washington. Titled Ad Hoc Committee on Arts
and Sciences Freshman, the team consisted of Jon Bridgman from the History department, who
also served as committee chair, James Kenagy from Zoology, John Webster from English,
McCracken, Tokuno, and one student member, Wendy Hoff. Henley provides the committee
with considerations and instructions:
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When first-year students arrive at this university, many of them find it
overwhelming not only because college is a new and unknown quantity for them,
but because of our size, complexity, and lack of elaborate orientation programs
that some small colleges provide. Some students are never integrated into college
life…there may be no center [of their social lives]: some may devote full time to
college without being part of any intellectual community. I suspect that they miss
a great deal, and I am asking your committee to consider ways – in particular one
way, the Freshman Interest Groups – of remedying this problem for at least some
students (Henley, 1986).
According to Dean Henley, there was a definite need for a program such as Freshman Interest
Groups. While evidence of outside pressure or intense need from persons such as the President
and Provosts has not surfaced in research, the encouragement from Arts and Sciences staff was
apparent. Simkins (2003) commented, “The UW would have sailed on without the FIG program,
but it added a significant element to the options we offer first-quarter frosh.” Another driving
force of the program, though not explicitly stated, may have also been a desire to keep up with
the competition. The University of Oregon has long been a competitor of the University of
Washington; both schools pull from the same crop of high school seniors in the Pacific
Northwest. Washington may have noticed that Oregon could be considered more appealing to
some students because of the student-based programs they offered, such as the Freshman Interest
Group program, and in order to stay attractive to the students Washington may have adopted the
concept of FIGs (M. Pitts, personal communication, July 30, 2002).
If the committee also agreed that there was a need for the FIG program, Dean Henley
suggested that its implementation would be on an experimental basis, with a start date of autumn
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quarter 1987. One reason that the implementation of FIGs would be on an experimental basis
was because of previous failed endeavors. In the final paragraph of Dean Henley‟s letter to the
ad hoc committee, he dually noted the past program, Freshman Clusters, which “was tried [here]
about twenty years ago and failed” (Henley, 1986). By classifying the FIG program as
experimental, Arts and Sciences might have been able to protect the department from declaring
full support of a program that may fail miserably. Early supporters of the FIGs hoped that it
would not be laid to an early grave as the Freshman Clusters were (Simkins, 2003).
But were there people who were against the FIG program, especially since the Freshman
Clusters had failed and left a bitter reminder of what could happen again in the future?
According to Simkins (2003), for those involved the reaction was extremely positive. Advisors
were willing to get involved while departments were, for the most part, cooperative in setting
aside sections of classes. They saw success at Oregon, and since the school was so similar in
size and structure to the University of Washington, there was not much question about whether
or not the FIG program would work (Simkins, 2003). Michaelann Jundt, a FIG peer advisor in
1987 and 1988 and the director of the FIG program from 1994 to 2000, offered another side:
I don‟t remember there being a „campus reaction‟ initially. There was talk about
how FIGs had been working at the University of Oregon and people were
intrigued, but it wasn‟t well known at first and there was little conversation about
the need for such a program (M. Jundt, personal communication, March 9, 2003).
From a student‟s perspective in 1987, Jundt was not as captivated by the establishment of the
FIG program as were the staff in Arts and Sciences. Nonetheless, the FIG program was
underway with departmental support.
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Dean Henley also requested a plan from the committee, to be reviewed by the General
Education Committee and the College Council. The College of Arts and Sciences had formed
the General Education Committee with the purpose of deciding what courses in distribution
(areas of knowledge) could be counted, allowing them to make recommendations for any
changes. The College Council was a group of faculty who mostly analyzed requests for faculty
promotions and advised the dean on various programs. The two groups would be responsible for
determining whether or not the FIG program would be established at Washington.
On April 7, 1987 the ad hoc committee submitted their report to Dean Henley, with high
hopes that the FIG program be established at Washington and with a detailed plan on how to
implement the program. In the first part of their letter, they proposed that a dean be appointed
Acting Head of the program with the responsibilities of drawing up a budget, implementing
publicity, hiring and training peer advisors, working out administrative arrangements,
encouraging faculty involvement, and evaluating the program. The committee also wrote about
the leadership of the FIG groups, with each having a peer advisor who was a junior or senior
student, preferably with a solid interest in the subject area, and who would meet with the FIG
one hour per week, facilitate discussion, organize an introduction to the library, and help students
organize social activities. They also proposed a faculty sponsor to supervise the peer advisor. In
addition, they suggested that additional credit initially not be assigned for the one-hour per week
meeting, though they were open to the addition of one credit for participating in FIGs after the
trial period (Bridgman, 1987). In the second part of the committee‟s proposal, they defined, in
detail, the FIG program:
A Freshman Interest Group is a group of about twenty first-year students, all of
who take during Autumn Quarter the same two of three courses, which to some
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extent are related in subject matter…one of the three courses should be a
composition course – a requirement anyway, and limited to relatively few
students (Bridgman, 1987).
The committee also expressed their hopes that the FIG program “could help to provide what
ought to be at the heart of college education, namely, active participating in an intellectual
community of some sort” (Bridgman, 1987). In essence, the committee reaffirmed the original
suggestions of McCracken and provided specifics on how to implement and run the FIG
A response to the committee‟s proposal came in a letter from McCracken dated April 23,
1987. He conveyed that the General Education Committee “unanimously endorsed” the FIG
program, and the College Council “likewise urged that we move ahead with it” (McCracken,
1987.) In addition, the College Council did have some suggestions on the courses included in
the future, such as an arts course. McCracken also writes how the ASUW (Associated Students
at the University of Washington) Representative offered to help supply peer leaders for the
program. In conclusion, McCracken tells the committee that “Dean Henley has officially
approved our proposal and, by default, I am the self-appointed Acting Head” (McCracken,
The Freshman Interest Group program officially began in autumn 1987 and offered a
group of twenty to twenty-five freshmen guaranteed enrollment in a common curriculum, the
same instructors, and a peer advisor who would “meet with them to discuss subjects of common
interest and life in the College” (McCracken, 1987). In addition, the participants would be able
to meet with one or more of their faculty members outside of class. Though originally planning
for six FIGs, four groups were established: American Culture, The Individual and Society,
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Origins of Western Civilization, and Science/Math. In each of these FIGs there was to be
included an English composition course that satisfied part of the college proficiency
requirements. On June 16, 1988, Dick Newcomb, the Associate Director of Academic
Counseling, wrote to the advisors in the College of Arts and Sciences about the Freshman
Interest Groups. He informed them, “FIGs were offered for the first time (at UW) last fall.
Although the program was small, the students who took part seemed to consider it a success, so
this fall the program is being expanded and given more publicity” (Newcomb, 1988).
Throughout the years, students echoed Newcomb‟s statement that FIGs were a success. In a
1993 article from the University newspaper, the UW Daily, Crystal Tecca, a senior at
Washington and a peer advisor for two years, said, “It‟s good for freshmen because they have a
base of peers to start with and they don‟t feel like they are alone…we help them to think about
long-term plans and things like time management” (Ang, 1993).
The FIG program eventually fell under many hands and many departments. The FIG
program began under the leadership of McCracken in 1987, in Central Advising at the College of
Arts and Sciences. In 1988 Dean Henley added an Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education
to the College of Arts and Sciences with the job going to Fred Campbell, chair of the Sociology
department. Campbell was an ardent supporter of the FIG program; he had also had the goal of
offering more opportunities to smaller groups of students and was himself highly supportive of
new and innovating programs (Simkins, 2003). In 1991 Provost Laurel Wilkening proposed the
establishment of a centralized office that would focus solely on undergraduate education. In
response, the Office of Undergraduate Education (OUE) was established in 1992 with the hopes
of “making undergraduate education a much more visible and central part of the University‟s
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work and purpose” (“Office of Undergraduate Education: Mission”, 2003). Along, with this
change, Undergraduate Advising transferred from Arts and Sciences to the Undergraduate
Education Office with Campbell becoming the Dean. The Office of Undergraduate Education
also became home the UW Honors Program and Orientation, bringing the undergraduate
programs under one roof. In 1994 the division of New Student Programs was added to the
office, with Jundt as the director. And in 2000 the Freshman Interest Group program moved to
its current home in the Edward E. Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center, which was
established in 1992 with the “mission of facilitating opportunities for students to engage in their
community” (“Carlson Center: Center History”, 2003).
The ever-changing departmental ownership of the FIG program, with the move from a
marginal to more central arena, is quite a significant move. According to Simkins (2003), the
move was a result of an administrative change in reference to the overall structure of the
University. He also noted that it also made sense because Campbell was interested in all
freshmen, not just Arts and Sciences. Jundt agrees with this statement: “It was mainly an attempt
to have a more coherent organizational structure. OUE was beginning to house many campus-
wide programs for students and it made sense to put Orientation, FIGs, etc. together under one
director” (Jundt, 2003). In moving the FIG program under the umbrella of the Undergraduate
Education Office, there may also have been more opportunity to market the program to students
outside the College of Arts and Sciences. This point had been addressed in Newcomb‟s 1988
letter to the advisors when he stated, “FIGs are not limited to students in the College of Arts and
Sciences” (Newcomb, 1988). When the FIG program moved to the Undergraduate Education
Office, it quite possibly helped diminish any fears that only students in the College of Arts and
Sciences would join a FIG group. In terms of the move from the Office of Undergraduate
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Education to the Carlson Center, Jason Johnson, director of the FIG program from 1997 to 2001
and Associate Director of First Year Programs beginning in 2002, confirms that the reason for
the move to the Carlson Center really “had no purpose, it was just a result of organizational
auditing” (J. Johnson, personal communication, February 5, 2003). With its move to the Carlson
Center, the FIG program retained Johnson as its director and though the departmental
classification changed, the core values of purpose of the program did not. Incoming freshmen
were still being provided with the opportunity to register for a core group of classes in addition
to meeting with a peer advisor (Johnson, 2003).
As the program moved from one department to the next, so did the expenses of running
the FIGs. In terms of budgetary costs, the FIG program is recognized for its economic benefits
since it just takes one coordinator, relies on student volunteers, and does not require a massive
budget. Johnson mentions that the FIG program “shapes the experience of students dollar-to-
dollar, more than any other program” (Johnson, 2003.) Tracking the budget of the FIG program
is a complicated process since Arts and Sciences originally paid for it until the move to the
Office of Undergraduate Education. Jundt (2003) points out that while FIGs have always been
supported by Washington state budget, as some instances in history the Orientation budget (self-
sustaining through student fees) supported some percentage of staff time while at other times
“extra” Office of Undergraduate Education money has been spent. Currently $120,000 is the
yearly budget, one that has not changed in the last several years while the program size has
increased significantly (Jundt, 2003). The rising numbers and constant cost represent a program
that can sustain itself despite major growth.
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As the FIG program was established so was its purpose. The purpose for the FIG
program at the University of Washington may be considered two-fold: to assist students in
registering for courses and to assist in the adjustment of freshmen from high school to college.
The original goals were to breakdown the massive university, to establish clusters of interest, and
to get to know others with whom to study with (Simkins, 2003). The goal was also not to focus
on the whole freshman class, but on smaller, more intimate groups of students. Claire Sullivan,
coordinator of the FIG program from 1988 to 1990, summed up the original purpose of the
program in 1988:
FIGs are designed to allow students with similar academic interests to work
together during their first quarter at the University. The clusters of courses foster
students‟ initial professional aspirations, provide some curricular focus, and
relieve some of the anxiety common among students entering a large university.
Students will also have the benefit of meeting with a peer advisor on a weekly
basis to share their knowledge, impressions, and ideas about the courses they are
taking, so they may begin to discover common threads of understanding and
knowledge. Also, faculty of FIG courses will periodically meet with these
students outside of class for discussions of interest to students (Newcomb, 1988).
In comparing the initial purpose of the FIG program to its purpose in 2002, sixteen years later,
they are strikingly similar. According to the University of Washington New Student Programs
website, the FIG program serves multiple purposes:
A FIG is a group of 20 to 25 new UW freshmen with similar academic interests
who are enrolled in the same schedule of classes during their first quarter on
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campus. There are 135 FIGs offered for autumn ‟02. FIGs are a great registration
option for students interested in joining a supportive and friendly learning
community, which helps them get off to a good start at the UW. Within their
shared courses, FIG students come together with an undergraduate Peer Instructor
for a weekly seminar [that] introduces FIG students to various aspects of the
University of Washington community, including an exploration of university
resources and opportunities, and academically related skill development…FIG
students also meet informally with faculty and participate in activities outside of
class in the Seattle community (“Learning Communities”, 2002).
In terms of structure and academics, the original purpose has remained the same, though the
number of FIG groups has greatly increased. The utilization of peer advisors has also remained,
but with the new title of Peer Instructors. In addition, the concept of faculty connection has
An important question to ask is what happened between 1987 and 2002? Did the purpose
of the FIG program stay constant, or did it waiver? The initial purpose to assist in registration
and encourage social growth of incoming freshmen has stayed constant, however, some changes
have taken place. In essence it is as if the program began at one point, traveled from that point in
a wavering line, then ended up right where it began, a bit older and wiser. One way of
identifying where this wavering line has ventured is via the examination of the evolving titles of
the weekly discussion sessions when peer leaders would meet with FIG students. From 1987-
1990, the weekly discussion session was identified by the title of General Studies (GST), which
served to categorize the meeting time. The labeling of classes as General Studies started in 1935
in order to give student the opportunity to do something that was maybe not in their major (to the
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point of establishing a General Studies major), to allow an optional major for those who were
denied from another apartment, and to identify courses that did not fit into other departments.
FIGs were classified as General Studies courses because there was no other way to classify them;
a title was needed for registration and so General Studies was assigned (Simkins, 2003).
Another reason why there was no official title to the General Studies course was probably
because the FIG program was an experimental one and therefore categorization was not
necessary. This may indicate some apprehension about the future of the FIG program: why give
an experiment a permanent name, when it may not last?
In 1991 the University recognized that the FIG program should no longer be on a trail
basis, that this experiment was now a permanent option in the undergraduate experience. The
title of Proseminar was then given to the weekly discussion sessions:
It may have been assigned to promote legitimacy for allowing credit, and partly to
give a definition to what was really going on. Proseminar was more or less a
„catch-all‟ phrase, and I‟m not sure anyone knew exactly what it was supposed to
mean, for example, they knew what they wanted to happen in FIGs, but they
couldn‟t come up with a suitable academic title to describe it (Simkins, 2003.)
Though the title of Proseminar may have been confusing to some, it was also a symbol that the
FIG program was here to stay; the experiment was over.
A new focus defined the weekly discussion sessions of 1994-1999, and was one of the
most dramatic changes in the focus of the weekly meetings. The sessions were now categorized
under the title, “University Resources, Information and Technology.” Simkins (2003) explains
that the new title represented the design of the weekly sessions to help give students a broader
understanding of what was available at the University and how they could take advantage of the
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opportunities available. Jundt, who was a key player in this change, states that they changed the
title for a number of reasons:
The program was on the verge of a big growth spurt and we wanted to make sure
that prospective students and the campus community had a better idea of what
was going on in General Studies 199. No one knew what Proseminar meant! We
also were embarking on the UWired technology initiative – this was in 1994 – and
we wanted to signal to everyone that the FIG program was going to instruct and
support students‟ learning about information and technology. Plus, it gave us a
more solid ground on which to train FIG leaders (Jundt, 2003).
UWired was “the initiative to integrate technology into the curriculum was begun in 1994, and
FIGs were chosen as a means to introduce incoming freshmen to the use of technology for
information and communication” (“UWired: Projects and Initiatives”, 2001). This new purpose
represents not just a change in the FIG program, but also a nationwide trend: the rise of
technology in the business world, in the home, and on college campuses. Washington desired to
be right in step, if not ahead of, this change, and sought to educate its students on the
technological advances. Therefore the implementation of UWired into the FIGs seemed a logical
step, one that they continued to employ for five years.
Beginning in 2000, the focus of the weekly discussion sessions took another step. The
direction was to provide a common experience for University freshmen through the FIG
program. The General Studies title adopted the label of “University Community”, revealing the
unifying focus of the FIG program. It allowed FIG students to have “a unique opportunity to
form and develop their own learning community at the University of Washington” (“Learning
Communities”, 2002). Jundt explains, “Changing the name was also connected to changes in the
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program. Students don‟t need the kind of info/tech orientation that they needed in the mid-
1990‟s. Instead, they need an entry into the University that helps them become part of the
community” (Jundt, 2003). The community that she mentions is both an academic and a social
one; it encompasses the goal of helping students make sense of how they will both belong and
contribute. Johnson (2003) also mentions that the title of “University Community”, which has
continued today, reveals the objective of making the FIG program a universal experience for all
interested, incoming freshmen.
The transformation of titles for the General Studies course does not indicate a wavering
and unstable program; instead it reveals a successful and growing program. It began as an
experiment not yet credible of a title and developed into a permanent program that underwent
many facelifts, though the core has remained the same. The maintenance of the original goals of
the program is evident by the increase in number of FIGs and therefore number of participants,
the longevity of the program, and its institutional priority. The commitment to its original
purpose is also evident by the response of the student participants, peer leaders, faculty, and
administration. In a 1998 FIG/Freshman Survey from the Office of Educational Assessment at
Washington, students were quoted as saying that they feel comfortable approaching and taking
with UW academic advisors and faculty, they have made friends with many other students in
their classes, they have learned a lot about campus resources, and they feel as though they are
part of the University of Washington community (Lowell, Jundt & Johnson, 1998). These
statements parallel the goals of the FIG program as discussed in its early conception in 1987,
revealing that the students have benefited from the FIG program. Christie Leff, a peer leader in
2001 and 2002, stands by the FIG program. She states, “I found it very worthwhile. I would
recommend the FIG program to all freshmen” (Leff, 2003). And faculty also supports the FIG
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program. In an autumn 1996 Freshman Interest Group Faculty Survey conducted by the Office
of Educational Assessment, faculty “were able to take advantage of positive aspects of the
homogeneity and group cohesion of FIG students [while] several found that “the sense of
„community‟ amongst students made group work more productive and class discussions more
fruitful” (Lowell, 1996). Finally, the University administration continues to take pride in the
FIG program, as evident in the 1998 Report to the State which highlights the FIG program‟s
providing of “learning communities that help personalize the UW for new students”
John Thelin (1992) presented a working definition of student cultures as “patterns of
student life within the institution…it refers to group behavior and suggests some continuity and
transmittal over time and across student generations so as to be part of the organizational saga”
(p. 1714). The study of the FIG program is a study of student cultures at the University of
Washington. FIGs assist in the academic education and socialization of incoming freshmen and
have been doing so for sixteen years, making their impact on the university and becoming a part
of the “organizational saga”. Overall, the findings of this research point to a program that
started as an experiment, a transplant program from the University of Oregon, that has now
grown into something permanent, a universal opportunity to all incoming freshman at the
University of Washington. The purpose has stayed the same despite the rotating departments
and evolving titles: to help freshmen adjust to college through packaged courses and peer
leadership. Though FIGs are not mandatory, approximately seventy percent of incoming
freshmen opt to join an interest group, an indication to the growth and popularity of the program.
Freshman Interest Groups 19
For the other thirty percent, various reasons exist as to why they do not join: lack of course
options, they don‟t understand the purpose, or they are not interested.
Simkins summarized the history and future of the FIG program when he said, “They
started as a pilot program, grew into an established option, then really took off and became a
centerpiece of the effort to give freshmen a good start. I think FIGs are an absolutely
outstanding way of helping students get connected to their peers at both an academic and
personal level” (Simkins, 2003). And as long as the FIG program keeps running, the impact will
The road to discovery is not one that follows a straight path. Instead it is like standing on
top of a great mountain, deciding which trail to hike down and knowing that along the way there
will be twists and turns, obstacles to climb over or walk around, and in the end you will quite
possibly be brought to a different destination, one you never even imagined. In writing a
primary research paper on the Freshman Interest Group program at the University of
Washington, my pathway to discovery has changed dramatically and unexpectedly, and the
destination is one that I had not planned on but one that I know is not an endpoint, but a mere
It began with my decision to write about the FIG program. In 2000 and 2001 I served as
a peer leader in the FIG program at Washington, and found myself thoroughly enjoying my
leadership role, the camaraderie amongst leaders and FIG students, and the difference I was
making for the freshmen in my FIG. I rarely ever thought about the history or establishment of
the FIG program, but instead focused on the moment. When learning about primary research in
my Educational Leadership and Policy Studies 531 course (winter 2003), I decided that I wanted
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to explore the history of the FIG program and give a documented account of the establishment
and growth of the program over time. I was also inspired by John Thelin‟s article, Student
Cultures, mainly because prior to the course on the history of US Higher Education, I had never
read about the topic of student subcultures. Thelin‟s article was beneficial in helping me first
understand the topic and then learning how to conduct research.
I began not even knowing when the program had started. It took some research to just
find out the actual date of establishment, and after searching the web I discovered that the first
FIGs were offered in autumn 1987. I continued to do research on the web, looking for clues of
what to research and report. Originally, I put together an outline that covered the establishment
of the FIG program, its purposes, the structure including credit allotment and course syllabi,
perspectives from directors, students, faculty, and peer leaders, and a number of other items.
Quickly realizing that the outline was more suitable for a dissertation than a modest research
paper, I narrowed my focus to the FIG program‟s establishment, departmental ownership, and
When choosing to write on the FIG program I had a feeling that there would not be many
secondary sources to refer to or to compare my information with, but I at least thought there
would be a timeline or general reference to help get me started. I was surprised to find that there
was no timeline and hardly any secondary reports; the information that I did find was more of an
analysis of the current FIG program‟s composition than a recollection of its historical
establishment. Therefore my research is purely original, taken from almost all primary sources,
and one of the first documented accounts of the history, ownership and purpose of the FIG
Freshman Interest Groups 21
Sources used included the University of Washington website, surveys, articles, oral
interviews of key players, and original letters and documents. The website was a great starting
point because if helped me determine what information was available, yet the website soon
became one of my biggest foes because some of the information was contradictory or simply
missing (i.e., dates, lack of historical accounts, etc.) I was also able to download surveys taken
by the Office of Educational Assessment (OEA), which were beneficial because they gave me
quantifiable data that helped me decipher through ambiguous or conflicting information. The
least helpful source was the University Archives. Since the FIG program is relatively young in a
historical sense, the Archives had only a few newspaper articles that were written throughout the
1990‟s but didn‟t offer me much on the topics of establishment, departmental ownership, or
purpose. The articles did, however, give me an understanding of the campus attitude at that time
and their perception of the FIG program. I was actually surprised that the Archives did not have
more information; I thought that since the FIG program is such a burgeoning program that
records would have been started a few years ago. I also questioned the priorities of the
institution, asking questions such as how much time has to pass before a
program/building/person/event is worthy of being preserved in the Archives, what priority do
programs such as FIGs have on campus and in the history books, and what other items are
missing for the Archives that I may have (mistakenly) assumed to be there?
The most useful information was found by following a people trail that led me to a paper
trail. I started with an oral interview of a recent FIG leader, Christie Leff, on January 9, 2003. I
was able to document Christie‟s understanding of the current FIG program and the attitudes
associated with it, but I was unable to gather much from her on the history of establishment. She
referred me to Melody Peterson and Jason Johnson, the current and past directors of the FIG
Freshman Interest Groups 22
program. I spent some more time researching the Internet and formulating questions in the
following weeks and then met with both Melody and Jason on February 5, 2003 for a joint oral
interview. I found that Melody had been in the same position as Christie – able to offer me
information on the current program but not the history. Jason, on the other hand, was quite
knowledgeable in the history and was able to provide me with not just interesting facts and
stories, but also helped me focus on the three aspects of this research paper: establishment,
departments, and purpose. Though his factual knowledge was a bit wavering, his knowledge of
the program history and stories involved were immense. He also shared with me a file of
information that turned out to be a hidden treasure to a weary researcher. This file contained
mainly primary research materials: letters and memos from Ernest Henley and David
McCracken, some of the key players in the establishment of the FIG program. Piecing together
the letters was like piecing together a puzzle; they were not in chronological order and there were
so many that it took me hours to decipher the order. Since I was asked not to remove the file
from the Undergraduate Gateway Center in Mary Gates Hall, the place of discovery, I had to
type and handwrite the most relevant information for me to take with me and refer to at a later
date. I also noticed past brochures, flyers, and other promotional materials in the folder, which
gave me the inspiration to create a program brochure for my research presentation.
While looking through the file, I noticed a name on one of the letters that was familiar:
Richard (Dick) Simkins. Dick had been working in my office, the Office of Admissions, on the
UW campus for a few months evaluating curriculum. When I saw his name and saw that he was
a key player in the establishment, I set up an oral interview with him on February 18, 2003.
Before the interview with Dick, I attempted to piece together all the information I had gathered
and found that many holes existed in my encapsulation of the FIG program‟s history. Dick was
Freshman Interest Groups 23
extremely helpful in filling these missing gaps and explaining to me the connections between
people, letters, and events. He also clarified responsibilities of departments and other groups,
deciphered abbreviations, and told me stories pertaining to people‟s perceptions of the FIG
In addition to talking with Dick I was also able to communicate with Michaelann Jundt,
another key player and past director of the FIG program, on March 10, 2003. At one point I
asked her some of the exact same questions I asked Dick, to see if she had a different response.
Michaelann was also another great resource in regards to all her knowledge of the program and
also her willingness to help. In talking with Christie (peer leader beginning in 2001), Melody
(current director), Jason (past director), Dick (key player in the establishment), and Michaelann
(peer leader beginning in 1987 and past director), in addition to examining primary research
materials, I was able to effectively triangulate my research and not just get one point of view, but
look at a topic from multiple angles.
A few items interested and surprised me in my research of the FIG program, as well as
inspired me in further research. I was unaware that the FIG program had gone through so many
changes in regards to departmental ownership and titles for the weekly seminar. With more time
available, I would have researched the establishment of the various departments to find out more
about their original purposes and whether or not the FIG program fit into their schematics. I
would also like to interview other persons including, but not limited to, all the past directors,
such as Ken Tokuno, who worked as director for a few years and is now working in Hawaii,
students from different years, both affiliated and not affiliated with the FIG program, and faculty
both involved and not involved with FIGs. I was also surprised to hear that the program was
adopted from the University of Oregon; the impression I had received as an undergraduate was
Freshman Interest Groups 24
that Washington was the vanguard of New Student Programs. In a brief search of the Internet I,
in fact, realized that the concept of first-year programs had been in effect since the late 1950‟s. I
would actually be very interested in conducting further research into other accounts of first-year
programs (ranging from the very first programs established to the most recent), where and why
they were established, and a study of how the national trend occurred.
A concern I had when conducting research and recording it was how much I, as narrator,
frame the history of the FIG program. I attempted to site sources, stay true to quotes, and be as
objective as possible, but this was a very difficult task to accomplish. The reason why it was so
difficult ranged from needing to only use a sentence out of an eight sentence quote, not being
able to accurately capture tones and mannerisms of those I interviewed, and not having enough
time to more accurately piece together the information. I learned that conducting primary
research is much like being a detective. First you must determine where to look, who your
subjects (witnesses) are, and what questions to ask. Then when you start getting answers you
start to make connections, realizing what may still be missing and what you want to inquire
about some more. In researching the FIG program at the University of Washington, I was very
much so a detective. I literally had to weed through the sources, make connections, and piece
together the history of the FIG program, while at the same time trying to curb my opinions. In
the end I was able to present many viewpoints on one subject and hopefully provide an accurate
historical account of the establishment of the FIG program at the University of Washington.
Freshman Interest Groups 25
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Freshman Interest Groups 26
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