University of St. Michael’s College principal Randy Boyagoda teaches a course in the Gilson seminar. Photo courtesy University of St. Michael’s College

St. Mike’s seminars create launching pad for first-year students

By 
  • October 19, 2019

The University of St. Michael’s College is trying to make the leap from high school to post-secondary education a little easier with the introduction of a number of seminars that open up university life to the freshman class.

Randy Boyagoda, principal at the Catholic college on the University of Toronto campus, knows the classroom experience is going to be quite different for students furthering their education at Canada’s largest university. With an enrolment of more than 90,000 and 700 undergraduate programs, it can be quite daunting for someone still in their late teens when they arrive on campus. It’s why he sings the praises of St. Mike’s First-Year Foundations (FYF) seminars as a launching pad into the next phase of study.

“The key features of these seminars, no matter the topic, is this is an introduction to university-level study,” said Boyagoda.

They aim to set students on the path to having the conversation needed with peers and professors in a university context as opposed to a high school one. The classes are small, capped at 30 students, and that helps ease them into university life.

“These seminars are structured in a way to invite students into that kind of questioning and answering and they’re meant to be a kind of intentional transition place that provides university credit into future university studies in our programs and others,” said Boyagoda. 

These programs raise the bar for someone just leaving high school and eases them into university life while introducing the rigours and challenges students can expect as they climb the education ladder. He points to what he calls perhaps the most exciting of the five FYF courses, done in collaboration with the computer science department at U of T. “Intelligence, Human and Artificial” takes a look at how intelligence has been understood across the centuries, in religious terms, philosophical terms and in the emerging terms of AI (artificial intelligence).

“Here are two very different topics (taught separately) at St. Michael’s, you do both in conversation with each other,” said Boyagoda. “That integration, that fullness is what makes a distinctive first-year learning experience for our students. … The life of the mind and the life of faith are mutually affirming and challenging, they have much to say to each other.”

Other courses cover topics such as video games, the Sistine Chapel and beauty, both human and divine.

The FYF seminars are 14-week half credits that this year have attracted about 20 per cent of St. Mike’s first-year students. That’s up significantly from the five per cent who took advantage of them in the first year they were offered. They join the seminars of the SMC Ones program (the Boyle, Gilson and McLuhan seminars) as a “broader offering of a first-year learning experience” at St. Mike’s, said Boyagoda. 

“Each is topical in and of itself but in order to understand the phenomena of video games or why the Sistine Chapel matters, you can’t approach that subject in a kind of singular homogeneous disciplinary way,” he said. “You need to draw on any number of different disciplines and bring them into integrated conversation with each other.”

They also point towards other sponsored programs within St. Mike’s, like the Christianity and Culture, Celtic Studies or Book and Media Studies programs.

“We invite students through these first-year seminars to consider taking more courses in our SMC-sponsored programs,” said Boyagoda.

By keeping students involved in the St. Mike’s programs, said Boyagoda, the seminars help demonstrate the point of the college system at U of T (St. Mike’s is one of seven colleges at the downtown St. George campus within the Faculty of Arts and Science, with two more colleges located in Scarborough and Mississauga). Each college creates a more human, personal scale at a school of such a size.

“These seminars are consistent with that idea and they make it real in the classroom.”

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