The Fall Experience Journal

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The first several weeks of the fall semester is absolutely critical for first-year students, as it is during this period that they develop the relationships with faculty, staff, and peers that will connect them to campus and (hopefully) lay the foundation for a life-long affinity for the institution. At a residential college (like Johns Hopkins, where I work and teach), advisers and student affairs administrators try to make it easy to collect these experiences and connections during the start of the fall term through a variety of programs that generally fall under the heading of “First Year Experience.” Even setting aside these formal programs, just being on campus and exposed to new people and experiences allows most students to get connected with little effort. Things like making new friends at the dining hall, random invites to social and co-curricular events, joining your roommates at football games, and running into new people on the way to class or in a cafe can quickly add up to a sense of being part of a new community.

COVID-19 and the realities of a virtual campus experience changes all of that. While Hopkins, like most schools, will offer an impressive range of social and co-curricular activities in a virtual format, students will have to intentionally engage in these activities. There is no virtual equivalent of randomly running into a new acquaintance on the quad on your way back from dinner and then joining them at a social event where you will meet your future best friend. Confident students and students who already have social ties on campus will likely still be easily able to find connections and build an affinity for the institution. But what about the rest of the first-year class?

One of the goals of my “Introduction to Hopkins: Arrive and Thrive” course this fall is to provide a framework to my first-year students for virtually engaging with the university and a set of tools and reflective practices to process and make sense of these engagements. As part of the class, I’m requiring my students to keep a Fall Experience Journal. The journal itself doesn’t have to be elaborate or fancy – I prefer a basic Moleskine Cahier notebook for myself and I actually mailed my students a blank craft notebook as part of their Life Design Essentials kit – but I do want it to be analog. I also hope that whatever form it takes, it inspires the students to return to it throughout their first year and keep it at their desk throughout the fall. Each day for at least the first month of classes (longer if they can keep it up) I am asking them to complete the following four sentences:


What new person from the campus community did you meet today? It could be a classmate, a faculty or staff member, a recent graduate, an employer, or even a community partner – but it should be someone connected to the university community that you just have joined. If you haven’t met anyone new today, can you find an event taking place on campus (meeting of a campus organization, career event, First Year Experience social event, faculty or librarian office hours, etc.) that will connect you to new people tomorrow?


Hopefully you are learning new things in each of your courses (if you aren’t it might be worth checking in with your academic adviser), but learning doesn’t need to be limited to the classroom. On days when you don’t have class, can you indulge your intellectual curiosity by attending talks by visiting speakers, learning more about campus and the community in which it is located, or just engaging your new friends in meaningful discussions that will challenge your beliefs, expand your horizons, and introduce you to new ideas?


The first-year of college is often a series of “firsts”, as students seek out new experiences and engage with a diverse and busy campus that offers them possibilities and freedoms beyond what most experience in high school. While you may not have the same level of freedom or possibility as a virtual student, you can still intentionally seek out new opportunities and experiences. What new things did you try out today? Did you audition for a musical group? Write software code for the first time? Try out a new dish or recipe? Do something that took you out of your comfort zone? If you didn’t try anything new today, what new thing do you hope to try tomorrow?


A liberal arts education can – and should – raise more questions than it answers. As you meet new people, engage with new ideas and ways of knowing, and try out new experiences you will find yourself asking questions. Some of these questions can be profound and deep – Who am I? What is my purpose? What do I want from my life and from my education? Others can be more basic – where can I go for academic help? When will I choose my spring classes or sophomore year roommate? Or (when campus returns to in-person) where is the best place near campus for a cheap meal? Take note of these questions so that you can ask them as you speak with members of the campus community.

That’s it. The entries can be as short or as long as the student prefers. Some may choose to quickly jot down the day’s engagements in as few words as possible. Others may use this opportunities to write longer entries that fully catalog and reflect upon the experiences of the day. The main thing though is that they actually make the effort to have these experiences and then write them down daily. And if they don’t meet anyone or try/learn anything new or ask themselves any questions that day, they are aware of this and think of ways to seek out these experiences the next day. At the beginning of class during each week in September, I will ask them to return to their journal to answer a series of reflective questions designed to help them better understand themselves, their experience at Hopkins, and their goals for the education.

an example of a what a Fall Experience journal might look like based on my own experiences last Thursday when I spent the day in a professional development class at our business school.

Life Design Images copyright Bill Burnett, Dave Evans, and Stanford University

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