Starting college is a nerve-wracking experience for almost every first-year student. In fairly short order, freshmen must learn how to navigate a new environment, study for challenging courses, become proficient with campus technologies and processes, interact with scores of new students and instructors and balance academics with work and extracurricular activities.
University of Wisconsin–Madison sophomore Elana Finn recalls these worries. She also remembers wanting to enter the university with some college credits already under her belt.
“I knew plenty of high school graduates who were starting college with upwards of 30 college credits,” Finn explains. “But advanced placement classes work a bit differently where I’m from in New York — they’re difficult to get into — so I didn’t have as many opportunities to earn college credit in advance.”
That’s when Finn learned about a new program at UW–Madison, Wisconsin Experience Summer Launch (WESL), which aims to ease some of the common worries for incoming students and help them get a jump start on their academic careers.
Now in its second year, WESL is an eight-week online program that allows incoming first-year students to take courses, earn college credit and begin to build their Badger community before they even set foot on campus. Students in the program take three courses over the summer: a 3-credit general education course, plus two 1-credit seminars that help students learn more about UW–Madison resources and techniques for academic success.
Getting up to speed
Finn took Psychology 202: Introduction to Psychology as her 3-credit WESL course. An aspiring business student hoping to major in marketing and operations and technology management, she knew the class would satisfy a business program requirement.
Though she had taken two online classes in high school, she found the WESL course to be a much better experience and a great learning opportunity.
“My online psychology class was really flexible.” says Finn. “I could work intensely on my class every other week, which allowed me to travel and do other things. It also gave me the opportunity to master [UW–Madison learning management platform] Canvas. That’s proved to be especially helpful as all of my classes were transitioned online this spring due to COVID-19.”
She discovered further benefits to her WESL experience in her first fall semester on campus.
“Coming to UW with 5 credits allowed me to reduce my course load a bit in the fall. I saw friends and other students around me struggling with heavier course loads while trying to adjust to college. Taking the online summer classes through WESL made my fall semester dramatically different,” she says.
Finn says the WESL program also helped her become more comfortable communicating with professors, which gave her the confidence to develop better in-person relationships with them in her fall and spring semesters.
“I went to a very small private school where I had the same small group of teachers for several years,” she says. “All of my WESL course instructors really helped put me at ease and understand that my relationships with them don’t have to be high-pressure. And [Psych 202 professor] Dr. Green was amazing! He’s one of the most popular psychology professors on campus. I loved his teaching style and felt really connected to his course.”
The two 1-hour seminars on how to succeed in college and campus resources heightened Finn’s excitement to attend UW–Madison. She advises students currently enrolled in WESL courses to take advantage of these pre-learning opportunities.
“Coming to campus, learning Canvas, taking classes — it’s a lot to take in,” notes Finn. “Take time in your WESL classes to learn more about UW, the technology used here and the resources available to you. You’ll enjoy coming to campus with the experience, feeling more relaxed and able to enjoy all that college has to offer.”
Preparing for the future
Sydney Plante, who also participated in WESL in summer 2019, had both short- and long-term goals in mind when she chose to enroll in the program.
“I wanted insight on how hard college classes would be so that I would feel prepared for the school year,” Plante recalls. “I also knew I wanted to graduate early and that these credits would help me toward that goal.”
She selected Gender & Women’s Studies 103: Gender, Women, Bodies, and Health for her 3-credit course and admits it was more challenging than her high school classes. She describes it as an overall good experience that helped her anticipate future demands.
“The workload and expectations accurately reflected what was to come for me in terms of academics,” she explains. “I was able to get a head start on college classes and learn how to be successful before arriving on campus.”
Now a declared neurobiology major who plans to earn a certificate in political science, philosophy and economics, Plante encourages other incoming Badgers to consider WESL.
“This is a great program if you want to know what to expect for your freshman year. I wasn’t as nervous when I got to campus because I felt like I already had some experience. If you’re anxious about the new journey, this summer program helps ease you into it. I loved this program and am so glad I did it.”
Learn more about the Wisconsin Experience Summer Launch program.