Life sciences retreat jump-starts the college experience for ASU freshmen


Jason Krell

For incoming freshmen, the college experience often starts with moving into the dorms or moving through the first day of classes. But for freshmen with the School of Life Sciences, they begin college with some unexpected fun — a few days at a retreat in the cool pines of Northern Arizona.

Created by academic success specialist Joe Davis, hundreds of freshmen headed north for Ignite — a retreat where they could make new friends and meet their professors before the semester started. Through icebreakers and group activities, students began to build the foundation for a new community in the School of Life Sciences.

“It’s very rare that a student is asked to sit and listen at Ignite,” Davis said. “From day one, they are engaged in activities, such as challenging faculty members with their own biology questions or participating in a team challenge course. This pushes them beyond their comfort zone and allows them to grow as a community.”

According to Davis, this now-mandatory retreat benefits students in a number of ways. Not only does it ensure that incoming freshmen know at least one friendly face when they start their first semester, it also helps them feel less intimidated by faculty. One example of student-faculty interaction, Davis said, was professor Kevin McGraw, who played spikeball or basketball with groups of students throughout the event.

“These retreat experiences carry over into the school year,” Davis explained. “Several students are now conducting research with faculty they met at Ignite. Students who have attended are more eager and willing to engage in classroom discussions. In short, it’s easier for them to adjust to college life because they are empowered to be bold.”

Freshmen biology majors Stephen Magot and Annissa Valencia felt the positive effects of Ignite even before the retreat had ended.

“It’s important for freshmen to come and do stuff like this because it lets them get some college experience,” Magot said. “Bunking with people you don’t know in the cabins, doing activities with new people, being forced to work together — they’re things that aren’t necessarily a classroom environment but can be applied there.”

For Valencia, the most important part was forming bonds with her future classmates.

“I was a little nervous at first, because I wasn’t sure how everyone would react with so many new people grouped together,” Valencia said. “It actually turned out a lot better than I thought, and it’s so nice out there.”

Beyond the academic and social benefits, both students said they had a lot of fun — and they aren’t alone. For Michael Angilletta, associate director of undergraduate programs, his favorite part of camp is the fun.

“I love getting to hang out with students and feed off their energy,” Angilletta said. “I get excited for the start of a new year when I see how excited they are. Professors also need to develop a relationship with their students to feel comfortable when teaching.”

Both Angilletta and Davis said they feel strongly about Ignite’s role in the future success of life science students.

“After finances, the second reason students leave college is they don’t feel like they belong,” Angilletta said. “Ignite enables us to build a sense of community within the School of Life Sciences that prevents students from feeling lost and alone at ASU.”

With the school year now underway, Davis said students and faculty with the school can walk into class with memories of time together already under their belts — ready to face the challenges of college as a community.