Ask any student who has survived the first few years of college life, and they’ll tell you every quarter can feel like an endurance run. You’ll hit the ground running on the first day of classes and by mid-quarter feel as though you are treading water, hoping to reach the finish line with decent grades and memories of positive experiences.
Enter University Studies—UNST in Banweb—Portland State’s unique version of the general education requirement common to most university bachelor degrees everywhere. What sets PSU’s program apart is its individualized attention of UNST professors and staff and detailed explanation of the multitude of resources available to students.
“Gen ed courses are there to teach you how to learn,” said Krys Roth, executive assistant to the director of UNST. “This is where students learn to think for themselves. One of our program’s goals is to challenge you to think critically, but students also get personalized help and care from faculty and mentors to provide social and academic resources.”
UNST is different from other universities’ gen ed programs because students have more opportunities and choices. The 40–45 credits earned taking UNST courses—as opposed to the 60–65 required in typical gen ed programs—cover the majority of PSU gen ed requirements. Students learn how to persevere and thrive through the challenges of university life.
Program courses focus on the practical skills employers seek today: persistent inquiry, collaborative problem solving, and research and writing skills.
“This is where you ask yourself, ‘What can I do to gather information on this question and sustain my inquiry?’” Roth said.
Here’s how it works: Depending on your class standing and whether or not you transferred credits in from another higher education institution, you will take a year-long (three sequential quarters) freshman inquiry class called a FRINQ, and three sophomore inquiry classes called SINQs that lead to a cluster of upper-level courses to complete the program. Both FRINQs and SINQs are taught by professors and assisted by peer mentors—fellow graduate and undergraduate students dedicated to supporting you on your journey through PSU.
“University Studies and the mentor program are about helping students find a place to belong at PSU,” said Dana Lundell, director of the mentor program for UNST. “Mentors are one way we have structured our program to help identify your needs.”
Peer mentors are just that: peers, and they’ve been through the struggles you will inevitably experience at some point in your first years of college life. Mentors are students who have persevered and know what it takes to achieve your goals at PSU.
“As a mentor, I am often asked the question, ‘Why do I have to do this?’” said Riley Lakos, graduate administrative assistant to the UNST Peer Mentor Program. “I wish students understood sooner just how unique and awesome this program is. General education is a requirement everywhere, but at almost any other university it would not be as supportive, resourceful and individualized as it is at PSU.”
For example, students in UNST courses gain opportunities to improve their writing through personalized feedback, writing in different contexts and exploring their own writing processes. Mentor sessions—intimate lab groups of 10–13 students—support the professor-led main sessions and feature peer review activities where writers get individualized attention and revision tips on their drafts.
“At PSU, our FRINQ and SINQ courses are designated ‘Writing Intensive Courses’ and therefore, take the place of a separate writing requirement,” said Leslie Batchelder, cluster coordinator for UNST Pop Culture courses. “The UNST philosophy is that writing is a process, so we try to teach students how to develop a strong writing process.”
As you accumulate tangible evidence of your brilliance throughout your UNST journey, the university provides you housing for the preservation of your work through an electronic portfolio tool called Pebble Pad. The e-portfolio you create for yourself is yours to keep forever, well beyond your time at PSU.
“Pebble Pad is the student’s own space to collect and curate their academic and extracurricular learning throughout their university experience,” said Zapoura Newton-Calvert, digital coordinator for UNST. “Employers want those they hire to not only have a college degree but to also have a depth of self-knowledge and ability to work well with others, be culturally competent and think critically. Portfolios prepare students to be incredibly articulate about themselves with real depth and concrete examples.”
Ultimately, UNST isn’t a program designed to plug a curriculum of facts into your brain; the objective is to help you master the resources needed to seek out answers for yourself and become a self-directed, lifelong learner. Take advantage of everything UNST has to offer.