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First-year experience brings national accolades, and praise from students

It didn’t take long for the ACU community to make an impression on Carson Wright when he first stepped foot on campus.

He was a product of the Fort Worth public school system and wasn’t sure what to expect from ACU and Abilene. His first encounters on campus put his mind at ease and set the tone for the remainder of his time as a student.

“It’s a completely vibrant experience,” Carson, now a senior, said.

Those in charge of college rankings at U.S. News & World Report agreed when it came time to select schools to cite in a new ranking that focuses on student success. ACU was the highest-ranking university in Texas in the new benchmark with Top 20 status in three of eight high-impact categories, including being ranked No. 9 in the first-year experience category.

That ranking isn’t surprising to Carson, who made new friends right away during Wildcat Week, which is held every August just before classes begin. There was an immediate sense of togetherness, Carson recalled.

“Everybody is looking after everybody else,” he said.

And that first impression proved to be a lasting impression. Another component of the first-year experience is Cornerstone, a one-semester class. All new students are enrolled in Cornerstone with their mentor groups from Wildcat Week. Carson recalled that his group adopted a child for Christmas as a service project. They went shopping together for toys to surprise the child.

“It was really fun,” he recalled.

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Shannon Kaczmarek
Shannon Kaczmarek

Those kinds of first-year recollections bring a smile to the face of people like Shannon (Buchanan ’07) Kaczmarek, who is ACU’s director of residence life. A part of her department’s mission is to create a sense of home for new students. It starts with the official move-in day at the beginning of the fall semester. New students and their parents are in for the surprise of their lives when they drive up to a residence hall and see hundreds of volunteers eager to help them lug all their boxes and luggage into their new room.

“It’s been a really positive thing,” Kaczmarek said.

Throughout that experience and Wildcat Week, students are immersed in an atmosphere of being served, cared for and welcomed. And it doesn’t end there. Freshman and sophomore students are required to live on campus in one of the nine residence halls, three for men and six for women.

The residence halls together can house a maximum of 1,850 students. But no one gets lost in those numbers. Each residence hall is served by residence advisors who each take 24 to 30 students under their wing. The residence advisor-student relationship is based on being engaged in a meaningful way through conversation.

“Our goal,” Kaczmarek said, “is to be in conversation with every single student living in our buildings.”

Making conversation was something that didn’t come naturally to Nikole Taylor when she arrived on campus her freshman year. She was a long way from her home in Las Vegas, Nevada, and wasn’t sure she wanted to be at ACU.

In fact, she planned to transfer to a university closer to home after one year. Her mother and two aunts were products of ACU, and she was encouraged to stick it out a while longer. Wildcat Week and the Cornerstone experience set the tone for a welcoming environment. Then, Nikole, who is African-American, got involved with student government and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, which oversees student groups that focus on multicultural diversity. Soon, she began to realize that people all around her were available and willing to engage in conversation.

“It was just up to me to do that,” she said.

About mid-way through her second semester, Nikole decided that ACU was the right place for her and ditched plans to transfer. She signed up to be a leader for Wildcat Week before her sophomore year. Today, Nikole, a liberal studies major, is on track to graduate in May 2020.

“It comes around full circle how God makes everything work out,” she said.

New students participate in Wildcat Week, a weeklong program that immerses students into the academic, social and spiritual life of ACU.

All new students are enrolled in Cornerstone, a seminar class, with their mentor groups from Wildcat Week. Their same peer leaders serve as mentors throughout the course.

Early in the semester, ACU hosts Family Weekend for families of first-year students to experience life at the university. Families and students attend chapel, sporting events and mixers together. The main feature of the weekend is Freshman Follies, a music variety show performed by first-year students with other students from their respective residence halls.


Elements of ACU’s First-Year Experience:
  • Every first-year and transfer student attends a two-day new student orientation before their first semester begins.
  • Students meet their academic advisors to forge a relationship and begin setting expectations for their entire college career. They also meet faculty, residence life staff and others who can help familiarize them with college life.
  • New students participate in Wildcat Week, a weeklong program that immerses students into the academic, social and spiritual life of ACU.
  • All new students are enrolled in Cornerstone, a seminar class, with their mentor groups from Wildcat Week. Their same peer leaders serve as mentors throughout the course.
  • Early in the semester, ACU hosts Family Weekend for families of first-year students to experience life at the university. Families and students attend chapel, sporting events and mixers together. The main feature of the weekend is Freshman Follies, a music variety show performed by first-year students with other students from their respective residence halls.

A focus on student success

The special attention given to guiding new students as they transition into college life helped ACU earn accolades from U.S. News and World Report’s benchmark based on student success. ACU was the highest-ranking university in Texas in the magazine’s new category, “A Focus on Student Success.” Nationally, ACU achieved Top 20 status in three of eight high-impact categories:

  • Service Learning – #4
  • First-Year Experience – #9
  • Learning Communities – #11

The only other Texas universities in the Top 20 of the new benchmark were Baylor, Rice and The University of Texas at Austin. Additionally, ACU was ranked in the Top 50 in the nation in two other categories:

  • Study Abroad – #35 (tie)
  • Undergraduate Research/Creative Projects – #42 (tie)

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