Photo of Ashley C. Ford, speaking to more than 600 UW-Platteville students as part of the Helios speaker series in 2023. Ford is author of the New York Times bestselling memoir "Somebody’s Daughter."

As part of the Helios speaker series, more than 600 students attended Ashley C. Ford’s discussion in 2023. Ford is author of the New York Times bestselling memoir “Somebody’s Daughter.”

Designed to create shared intellectual experiences for first year students, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s groundbreaking Helios Program has succeeded in generating impressive community and academic enrichment in only two years.

The College of Liberal Arts and Education launched the Helios Program in fall 2022 thanks to the generous support of the Teagle Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Helios was created to give students a more meaningful experience in the general education curriculum and give them broader access to humanities-based learning. This program allows students, specifically first year students, to explore humanities concepts and learn about issues affecting our global society in a purposeful way. In addition, participating students can earn a Certificate of Integrated Liberal Arts by completing coursework in one of three clusters: environmental and sustainability; science, technology and society; or law and conflict resolution. In fall 2024, global citizenship and diversity, equity and inclusion will be added to the options. Required courses for the pathways include academic disciplines of English, history, philosophy, sociology, criminal justice and political science.

In the 2022-23 academic year, Helios served about 700 students in the gateway courses, designed for first year students. Participation doubled this year, with 1,400 students enrolled in gateway courses and 30 students pursuing a certificate.

In a survey given to first-year gateway students, participants praised the program. “I love the connection everyone has with each other and how we have built friendships over time,” said one student. “Engaging with my classmates’ ideas and perspectives helps me better connect broad ideas together and get a deeper understanding of the texts/discussion,” explained another.

Not only does Helios create a sense of community among its students, but the program has also shown an increase in students’ retention. According to Dr. Katie Kalish, professor of English and co-director of the Helios program, “The results that we have from our assessment are showing enhanced levels of student retention. We did a survey and compared some of our results with the National Survey of Student engagement and are finding that students are having a good experience and feeling more connected to peers and faculty, and they also like engaging in perspective taking.”

This program is an ideal opportunity for students who wish to explore different academic fields of study while earning a credential. Students can complete this certificate while working towards a bachelor’s degree without adding any extra time. “[The Helios program] offers an inclusive model of academic identity,” states Dr. Amanda Tucker, professor of English and co-director of the Helios program. “Most of the time, we think of a student’s academic identity in terms of major – which ignores the fact that many students are undecided or switch majors at some point in their college careers. In fact, national statistics show that 80% of students change their majors at least once. The Helios program can provide a stable and positive learning experience for all students, even as they are rethinking their academic focus.”

One unique experience that Helios offers is a speaker series, bringing celebrated guests to the UW-Platteville campus each fall. In 2022, award-winning poet and performer Danez Smith visited UW-Platteville as a featured speaker. In 2023, Ashley C. Ford, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir “Somebody’s Daughter,” visited campus for a reading and discussion. Over 600 students attended this event.

Looking to the future of Helios, Tucker expressed that she and Kalish “hope to serve as many first-year students as possible in the Helios gateway course, particularly since we’ve seen that it has a positive effect on their transition to college.  We also hope to increase student participation in the Helios Certificate as we continue to work with stakeholders across campus to build awareness of the Helios program.”

Though the funding from the Teagle Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities will end in 2024, Tucker and Kalish, along with the College of Liberal Arts, are committed to making Helios a hallmark program at UW-Platteville.

Written by Grace Genz, LAE Writing Intern

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