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Georgia College LEAPS ahead of the pack with 'GC Journeys'

“GC Journeys” is a new program that encourages high-impact practices and transformative experiences, designed to put students on the road to success.

But it has also put Georgia College on a definitive road – where it finds itself in the lead, blazing a trail for other schools.

In 2016, the University System of Georgia (USG) joined the nationwide initiative “Liberal Education and America’s Promise” or LEAP. The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) challenged schools to take six steps, helping students acquire higher-order thinking skills and real-world capabilities.

Dr. Kelli Brown.

AAC&U’s six steps are: essential learning outcomes, high-impact practices, signature work, authentic assessment, civic connection and inclusion.

Most colleges and universities tackle LEAP steps one at a time. But Georgia College’s GC Journeys program, implemented last fall, embraces all six tenants at once.

“The fact that we’re looking at all the pieces, the whole picture and not just one area of LEAP, makes us unique,” said Provost Dr. Kelli Brown, senior vice president for academic affairs.

“We’re ahead of the game,” she said. “We’re so far ahead of the game, sometimes it’s scary because there’s really no one else to call and ask, ‘How did you do this?’ There is no one else doing it.”

Georgia College is being called upon to teach others schools. Dr. Carolyn Denard, associate provost and director of the Center for Student Success, gave the keynote LEAP address at a USG meeting in December, where Georgia College administrators also participated in a panel discussion about GC Journeys. This month, Career Center director Dr. Mary Roberts will present an important aspect of GC Journeys – Career Planning Milestones – at a conference for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) in San Antonio, Texas.

In 2015, AAC&U reiterated its challenge with a workshop in Oklahoma by asking colleges and universities to rethink general education. A group from Georgia College included director of Institutional Effectiveness Dr. Cara Meade Smith, professor of secondary education Dr. Cynthia Alby, associate professor of geography Dr. Amy Sumpter and psychology professor Dr. Noland White.

Dr. Cynthia Alba gave a presentation on GC
Journeys last year.

Most universities left the conference with an action plan. But Brown said Georgia College left with “a plan to plan.” That step-back-to-plan is what put Georgia College ahead of the pack.

“It’s really true,” Brown said. “We can’t find anybody else that’s doing this as comprehensively as Georgia College is – truly taking the essential learning skills across the curriculum and pulling something together like GC Journeys with high-impact practices.”

During the past several years, planners held workshops, focus groups and a discussion series for faculty, staff and students. They looked at what the university was doing right, what needed to be brought back and what needed to be discarded.

They discovered Georgia College was already doing many essential practices outlined by AAC&U. Transformative experiences were available through offices like the Career Center, International Education Center, GIVE Center, Leadership Program and Office of Inclusive Excellence.

Dr. Cara Smith and Dr. Kelli Brown examine data
for GC Journeys.

Then planners reviewed the curriculum and found the university was also achieving what it promised. A sweeping liberal arts education was taught across all 120 hours students take, not just in the first 60 CORE hours.

“CORE is an element in general education, and we’re trying to make that distinction,” said Dr. Cara Meade Smith. “We don’t think many universities in the region or the country are mapping their entire curriculum to essential learning outcomes, and we’re excited about that.”

The final result was GC Journeys – filled with research-based practices that combine academics and higher-order thinking with outside-class experiences. Students, who complete all four years at Georgia College, are required to participate in five transformative experiences.

Three are required by all students for graduation:

  • First-year Experience, a reformatted yearlong debut of seminar-style classes with a common book, information literacy and Convocation. These give students a strong academic foundation and practical tools needed to navigate college.
  • Career Planning Milestones, which guarantees students start job exploration early and receive critical training. They set up Linked-In accounts, review resumes and participate in mock interviews.
  • Senior Capstone, a faculty-mentored culminating project that showcases knowledge learned. Students now start thinking about capstone their first year in college. Through a new software, “Portfolium,” they’re guided to reflect and connect-the-dots, transferring knowledge and experiences into skills that can be applied to the workplace.

Study abroad experiences broaden a student’s

In addition, students must select at least two other transformative experiences: study abroad, internships, community-based engaged learning, intensive leadership programs or mentored undergraduate research. Study Abroad is the only selection that requires funding. To broaden this option, administrators are adding “study away” with domestic trips in the U.S. For example, students might visit a Navaho reservation or rural impoverished areas.

“There’s a lot of data behind these practices. These are very, very well researched,” Brown said. “If you do multiple, high-impact practices, you’re more likely to retain, to have better skill sets, to graduate on time, and you’re more likely to get a job or go to graduate school.”

Many Georgia College students already do these things on their own. More than 6 percent participate in study abroad, 40 percent do community-based engaged learning and 60 percent conduct undergraduate research.

Job training at the Career Center is an important
aspect of GC Journeys.

Now, all students are required to participate.

“It’s not really changing the way we already operate,” Smith said. “It’s naturally built in to what students are already doing – but now we’re actually naming it. We’re saying: These are transformative experiences and, if you do them, these are the outcomes.”

Brown agreed, “That’s one reason we feel this is perfect for us to do, because we’re not adding anything new. We’re just packaging it together and simply saying, ‘Let’s be intentional about this. Let’s be strategic.’”

The number of students participating in transformative experiences is expected to increase, as students travel the calculated path. Administrators hope at least 80 percent of this year’s freshman class will graduate with five or more high-impact items checked off.

This semester, administrators will add a final component to GC Journeys that also puts Georgia College in the forefront. Assessment will ensure students can apply what’s learned to complex problem-solving and real-world tasks.

“Georgia College is known for this type of innovation,” Brown said. “There are a number of things we’ve been first out of the gate for and, all of a sudden, the next thing you know, someone else is doing it.”

“We're always pretty shy talking about it,” she added, “but no longer. I think we have to be much more boastful where we've taken the initiative. This is huge.”

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