The Drew First-Year Seminar: Building Community when It’s Needed Most

DSEM courses go above and beyond in difficult year

January 2021 – Drew University prides itself on academic rigor, mentorship, and community—all made more challenging during a virtual semester amid a pandemic, and even more so when introducing first-year students to college life.

Every year, first-year students take a Drew Seminar (DSEM) course during their first semester on campus to acclimate to college-level writing and critical thinking, and to college life in general. There are class trips to New York City, movie nights, and other events to build community. During the fall 2020 semester, the DSEMs served an even more important place in the first-year course schedule.

We talked with the professors who led the seminars—and the students who took them—to fully understand the role DSEMs played during a unique fall semester.


Prof. Cermele promised her students the chance to play the course's traditional Quidditch match once health and safety guidelines allow it.

Building relationships

“Drew provided first-year students with something that is extremely difficult to achieve when remote and in the middle of a pandemic: the ability to connect with others,” said Lauren Geiger C’24, who took Professor Jill Cermele’s seminar Hogwarts, Houses, and Horcruxes: The Psychology of Harry Potter.

“Although we weren’t on campus physically, we created such strong connections virtually,” said Dante Spagnuolo C’24, who took Professor Emanuele Occhipinti’s DSEM In Good Taste: Food, Culture and Sustainability in Italy.

“I think those of us who taught DSEMs this fall were aware that we should encourage building community through contact with other students, faculty, and staff wherever we could,” said Professor Rita Keane, who taught Art and the Self, from the Artist Self-Portrait to the Selfie.

“Students were from different backgrounds—some even Zooming from other countries—and it was a new atmosphere and I had to talk to people I’d never met before. I was able to make friends and develop my first community at Drew,” said Harris Naqvi C’24, who took Professor Cermele’s course on Harry Potter.

“Some days that stood out were ones where we connected with other DSEMs,” said Professor Cermele, who directs the DSEM program. “We joined with Professor Erik Anderson’s Personal Identity and Immortality class to hear a presentation from the Drew Student Voter Project, and then students broke into cross-class breakout rooms to discuss a reading. We also joined Professor Minjoon Kouh’s How to Measure Depth with a Stopwatch: Physics and Mathematics of Everyday Life DSEM for a class on the physics of the Invisibility Cloak. It turned out some of our students knew each other from years ago!”

"I believe good learning builds good community, and good community builds good learning. The two go hand in hand, and the DSEMs at Drew exemplify that."

Building skills

“First-year seminars are blueprints of what is expected of you,” said Dante Spagnuolo. “Professor Occhipinti made it fun and challenging. The class was structured in a way where we were taught the material using real-life examples to reinforce it.”

“Some first-year students struggle adjusting to a virtual semester and with a first-year seminar, it really helps adjust you to college-level writing and work ethic,” said Fatima Jawneh C’24, who also took Professor Occhipinti’s DSEM.

“My professor and writing fellow were always open to answering my questions and helping whenever I needed it,” continued Fatima Jawneh. “The DSEM helped me acclimate to college when it came to forming my papers, how I wrote, and developed time management and online working skills.”

Interactive (and fun) by design

“This year especially demonstrated the value of being part of a vibrant, intimate intellectual community, even if that community was maintained on Zoom!” said Professor Jens Lloyd, who taught More than a Game: Sports Stories and Why They Matter. “I focused even more on providing students with opportunities to interact with each other and carry out small-group projects.”

“I tried to incorporate a broad range of activities that were both inclusive of all student voices in the Zoom room, and also served as springboards for larger discussions and interactions,” said Professor Raul Rosales, who taught Latinos/as in Hollywood.

“The DSEM helped me become more comfortable talking to people since it was so heavy on participation and making connections with each other,” said Harris Naqvi.

“On our last day of class, all the students and I chose a dish from one of the literary readings of the semester, prepared it, and presented it to the class, discussing why they chose it, themes it related to, and how they cooked it with all the ingredients,” said Professor Occhipinti, whose DSEM also featured virtual museum tours and lively debates.

“Students were sorted into Hogwarts Houses, and throughout the semester they earned House points through trivia and attendance to virtual Drew speakers events,” said Professor Cermele.

"The DSEM helped me become more comfortable talking to people since it was so heavy on participation and making connections with each other."

The importance of DSEMS

“Last semester more than ever, students needed to feel a sense of community and feel connected with their peers who shared the same difficulties and challenges that first-year students typically go through, but also the same excitement about their college experience,” said Professor Occhipinti.

“The faculty who teach DSEMs care deeply about creating an innovative and engaging experience for first-year students, and are specially trained in first-year advising and support,” said Professor Cermele“The students remain as advisees of their DSEM professors until they declare a major, but for many students, the relationship is such that they seek out their DSEM professors for unofficial advising throughout their four years at Drew.”

“I think the DSEMs build critical skills, but they also help build community and help set the foundation for what the Drew experience is,” said Professor Rosales. “I believe good learning builds good community, and good community builds good learning. The two go hand in hand, and the DSEMs at Drew exemplify that.”

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