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Ellen Nagy, Heidelberg University

Ellen Nagy,jpgHeidelberg University is a small private, four-year liberal arts university. The school is primarily a residential campus (78% of students live on-campus) with approximately 1,100 national and international undergraduates, as well as approximately 400 graduate degree candidates. There is a male/female ratio of approximately 52/48, which is unique.


Many Heidelberg students choose the institution because it is close to home, they can continue to play a varsity sport, and the overall costs are competitive. Eighty-four percent are in-state residents. Approximately 25 percent of the student population self-identifies as minority, the largest group being Black, non-Hispanic. Twenty-seven percent of the student population is coded as first-generation, which is defined as neither parent attended or completed college.

For several years, Heidelberg has attempted to provide a program for conditionally admitted students. In addition to being academically underprepared, there is a high percentage of first generation, low socio-economic, and minority students in this group. Most, if not all, of these students are also athletes. The persistence and graduation rate for these students is quite low.

In 2010, the students in this cohort were asked to participate in a qualitative survey including a photography project, much like one at James Madison University (Doherty, 2009). We hoped to dispel the myth on our campus that these students were not “real” college students. We were interested in hearing directly from these students about their first semester experience in college. Specifically, we wanted to have them to retrospectively observe their experience during their first semester in college: the events that they believed were significant and those things that were most enjoyable or stressful, as well as telling us what they actually did during this first semester. While our approach was certainly not groundbreaking, we were able to see a challenging population from their perspective and begin to consider adjustments to our program to help our conditionally admitted students become more successful.

Fall semester 2010, 32 first-time, full-time degree seeking freshmen agreed to participate in the survey and photography project. During their career development course, the students completed the following: a) a short written response at the beginning of the semester as to why they chose to come to this university, b) a short written response mid-semester during registration for spring classes reflecting on their biggest challenge and fondest memory of college, c) at the end of the semester, students were asked to choose three of five reflective questions to answer regarding their overall perceptions of their first semester in college, and d) a photography project. The instructions for the photography project asked students to think back to when they first arrived on campus, moved into their rooms, met roommates, went to class, practice, first game, concert, and to photograph (or use pictures they already had taken) any and all things that they felt represented their transition to college. From these photographs, they were to create a simple PowerPoint of 10 slides and provide a caption for each slide or photo (i.e., what the photo means to them, their thoughts and feelings related to that impression, and what they think may have influenced and contributed to those thoughts and feelings). On the final slide, with or without a photo, they were to sum up the semester at the university. The presentations were viewed in class with students providing commentary. Neither the written responses nor the PowerPoints were graded.


Student response at the beginning of the semester as to why they chose to come to this university – to play their sport – was not unexpected, as Heidelberg has 65% of the freshman class participating in varsity athletics.

Students were pleased to be asked for their input about the campus community and were eager to talk about their overall experience. The photographs were very much focused on their personal lives and spaces. There were relatively few photos of classrooms or academic buildings – and most that did appear were external pictures of buildings with this type of caption: “this is where I have most of my classes.”

Responses allowed us to see and acknowledge student concerns.

Sample Responses

At the beginning of the semester, students were asked why they chose to come to this university. Many of the responses – I came to play a sport – were what was expected given the demographic for this institution, yet many other students indicated that they wanted a better future for themselves than their parents. As one student states: “Football brought me here mainly. Secondly college to me is a way out.”

By the middle of the semester – end of October –  we asked students to simply tell us how the semester had been. Most were beginning to identify the challenges of their coursework, while others indicated pride in their athletic success or thriving social lives. For example, “The academic side of college has been going well. All of my grades are good except psychology[,] which is extremely hard. As for the social aspect, it has been very fun.” The second question we were interested in hearing about was what students felt was their biggest challenge. Even after eight weeks students were still adjusting to their independence. As faculty and administrators we often think that adjustment is or should be somewhat quicker. Here is one student’s comment: “The biggest adjustment that I’ve had to make is probably the life away from home. I have to do everything on my own – laundry, clean my room[,] and the hardest of all is no one to push me to do my school work. It all has to come from me.”

In the students’ final reflections, they were asked to identify the single greatest contributing factor to their overall perception of college. These responses provided us with the most useful information. Almost uniformly, students indicated their friends and the interactions that serendipitously occur. “Friends; friends really can make a college fun or bad. The “get-togethers” that happen outside of sports and classes.”

What did we learn?

While each student’s responses and photos were unique, there were a number of commonalities:

  • Students do more than attend class – they must manage their responsibilities as student athletes, students workers, and family and community members.
  • Students have to figure out how to be independent. Students are on campus 24/7. This means that many of them need to learn how to function in life: laundry, getting up, getting themselves to class.
  • Students get stressed.
  • Students study differently – students do not do all the work faculty assign or think that each class is interesting, but they do care about their grades and they do study, just not in places or ways we would assume.
  • Students change their minds about their major, their interests, their priorities, their friends
  • Students need friends – a  student’s friends are probably the most influential factor in how they view their college experience.


When we started this project, we were interested in knowing why students choose to come and stay at this institution. We thought we would simply confirm what the quantitative data was telling us and what we had observed from our own interactions with these students. We did not have a sense of how students saw their entire experience. After having students reflect and photograph their first year, we have a better sense of their lives. While our conditional students may need more assistance academically, this project was an excellent reminder that they are typical college students who need as much support outside the classroom as inside the classroom. We are currently revamping the conditional admit program and our new faculty mentoring program will help address more of the transitional needs of all students.

As one student wrote on his last presentation slide: “Look into my eyes. What do you see!!!!! The Beginning.”

Ellen Nagy
Director Faculty Advising, Assistant Professor, German
Heidelberg University
[email protected]


Doherty, Frank J.  (2009. March). Picture it: Exploring the undergraduate experience through photography and discussions.  E-Source for College Transitions. National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience® and Students in Transition.


Cite this article using APA style as: Nagy, E. (2013, March). Using reflective photography to better understand first year students' perceptions of college. Academic Advising Today, 36(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2013 March 36:1


# April
Sunday, May 21, 2017 4:23 PM
This is a great idea. It makes sense that a creative project -- perhaps in particular photography -- gives students not just something to track their experience, but also a sense of identity.

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