Book by: Rebekah Nathan
Review by: Megan Parker
Program Coordinator, New Student Programs
Iowa State University

Rebekah Nathan conducted the ultimate anthropological study by immersing herself in the first-year student experience at a large, public university.  Nathan took a year-long sabbatical from her faculty position, enrolled in classes and moved into the residence halls to not only examine, but become a part of, student life at her university.  My Freshman Year sheds light on the life of today’s college student through the author’s experiences in and outside of the classroom.

The book chronicles the author’s experiences as a student beginning with the application process, through new student orientation, to life in the residence halls before delving into the academic realm.  Nathan includes a hefty dose of experiments throughout the book that explore issues of diversity, community, and “college management” (p.110), accompanied by interesting commentary on the experiences of international students in the American student culture.

My Freshman Year is an easy read that can help advisors examine how their own practices encourage or discourage students, and raises interesting questions about the messages universities send about the meaning and goals of a college education. But advisors beware: this book is not for the faint of heart.  Those looking for a motivating, uplifting book to jump-start their advising season should look elsewhere.

If the book is to be believed, there is much work to be done in educating our students and the outlook is grim. One must also question how close Nathan’s experience as a fifty-something faculty member was to that of the largely twenty-something student body.  But for those who are removed from the student experience and need a fresh glance at the life of today’s students, this book provides an intimate snapshot of student life.

My Freshman Year. (2005). Book by Nathan, Rebekah. Review by Megan Parker.  Cornell University Press. 156 pp., $24.00. ISBN 0-8014-4397-0.


Review by: Jessica Bigger
Graduate Student
Kansas State University

My Freshman Year is an intriguing look into college life from an anthropologist’s point of view.  Rebekah Nathan (now known to be Cathy Small from Northern Arizona University) was perplexed as a professor and wanted to know why college students acted as they did: rude, disengaged, cheating and apparently not interested in their education. She got the idea to go undercover as a freshman student after auditing a number of classes and hearing student conversations that piqued her interest.  This began a yearlong ethnographic study in which Nathan lived in the residence halls, attended classes, and in all regards became a freshman student.  Her research and findings are based on observations in classes, her residence hall, and the campus in general as well as interviews with students.

Some of the topics covered include life in the residence halls, community and diversity on campus, the art of managing college life, and a discussion of academics.  I found Nathan’s discussion of community and diversity particularly interesting.  In short, with all of the impetus institutions put on building diversity and community on campus, students continue to form close bonds with those who are like themselves.  She does make the point that students are more likely now than in previous generations to have friends and acquaintances who are culturally different, but for all of the effort and programming to promote diversity on campus not much has changed when in comes to who students choose to have in their close social networks. 

Nathan also addresses the issue of what students are doing with their time while at college, which is not necessarily studying (on average only 1 hour and 45 minutes per day).  Almost half of the students were working an average of 15 hours per week and students were spending more time volunteering and with professional organizations in order to get ahead in their field.  These factors help explain why students seem more disengaged and less prepared for classes. 

The importance of academics versus the overall college experience is an overriding theme.  Nathan illustrates this in discussions on cheating (what is considered cheating and what is not) and students’ attitudes towards classes and professors.  Through her observations, both in class and in conversations with students, Nathan finds that students value the college experience more than the actual course work;  most students feel they learn more outside of class than through their coursework. 

Throughout the book Nathan makes interesting observations that range from how students schedule classes to the topics on residence halls bulletin boards and student doors. Overall My Freshman Year is a very interesting look at how today’s students maneuver and manage their college careers.  Some of Nathan’s findings may seem self-evident to those that work with students on a daily basis, but her method and insight provide a tangible and substantive understanding of those things students may not share freely. 

My Freshman Year. (2005). Book by Nathan, Rebekah. Review by Jessica Bigger. Cornell University Press. 156 pp., $24.00. ISBN 0-8014-4397-0.


Review by: Karla Mae Elling
Administrative Specialist
Records and Registration
Iowa State University

Overall I felt the book reiterated what I believed who today's students are. Students in the book seem less interested in the intellectual development, but motivated more than ever to come to college. There seems to be a disconnect in what colleges and universities expect to give to students and what students want from the college experience. For example, students are hardly heard discussing course material outside of class in comparison to decades ago where groups of students met regularly outside of class in order to dig deeper into course-related material. What is the difference now? Why are we not mimicking the past? I believe the evidence of how we know our students are being educated needs to change. Students in the book still graduated with great GPAs even though less and less time is being dedicated to their intellect. One of the reasons the book states that less time is devoted to studying is that students feel they need to be employed while in school. In my own department we utilize student workers and do not think twice of how their job might impede their academics. I do not believe that not employing students will make a difference.  I believe that students work in order to provide themselves the entire "college experience" and that we are a mere stepping stone their future. In order for me to take personal responsibility to ensure that students receive a quality experience, I should and will ask them more in-depth questions about their course work. They need to be questions that avoid the one-word response. It will take more thinking on my part to have a more engaging conversation, however, the reason why I am at this institution is because of students. I need to learn from them.

My Freshman Year. (2005). Book by Nathan, Rebekah. Review by Karla Mae Elling. Cornell University Press. 156 pp., $24.00. ISBN 0-8014-4397-0.


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