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Navigating through a slew of classes and requirements is part of the college student undergraduate experience. General education is a given.

But at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, the general education program is different. Redeveloped and launched in 2013, the University Studies Program (USP) is made up of Explore courses that encourage students to “try on” many different disciplines, and special Quest courses that introduce students to campus life, college expectations, careers and community engagement.

The USP provides students with an accessible, common intellectual experience that also embraces the traditional breadth of a liberal arts education to prepare them for the challenges of work, engaged citizenship, and a meaningful and satisfying life.

Five years in, USP is helping make positive strides in UW Oshkosh’s retention and graduation rates, University leaders report. While USP isn’t the only factor, the average retention rate from first-year to sophomore year since the program began has risen more than 2 percent over the previous average to more than 77 percent. The unofficial four-year graduation rate has climbed to more than 21 percent as the students who began with USP in 2013 become UW Oshkosh graduates.

“Since 2013, our USP has transformed from an exciting idea to an implemented idea, which is a refined operation,” said Gabe Loiacono, associate history professor and interim USP director.

Interim Provost John Koker always has liked that USP is a true program. “I wanted a program where faculty took ownership and made changes,” he said. “We are continuously developing and making this program better.”

In the 2017-2018 academic year, Quest II (or the second semester for first-year students) was adapted to help students through their first-year experiences. Moving forward, Quest II will be highly future-oriented, aimed at helping students plan their paths at UW Oshkosh and beyond. Students will be exposed to undergraduate research, academic and student organization opportunities, career planning and UW Oshkosh alumni.

“I hope this really helps our students begin thinking about their futures earlier,” Loiacono said. “One of the things general education is supposed to make students do is explore—and that’s a good thing.”

Also new this academic year for the USP is the addition of an Academic Open House week, which will be held in the spring semester Feb. 12-16, 2018. The goal of the Academic Open House week is to give students exposure to a menu of academic options and encourage them to get out and interact, Loiacono said.

“It’s a much more intentional introduction to the University, university life, campus and its offerings,” said Ken Price, math professor and USP associate director.

As students continue their educational experience through the USP, the Quest III experience eventually pushes students out into the greater community for a high-value, high-impact engaged citizenship opportunity—a point of pride for the University.

USP students visit Oshkosh Area Community Pantry.

In the 2016-2017 academic year alone, more than 19,000 hours of community impact were recorded by more than 1,100 USP students.

“These projects help students develop leadership and soft skills, which they can point to when applying for jobs, said Mike Lueder, USP civic engagement coordinator.

Lueder said this year students will again be seen at various organizations and entities throughout the community, including the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry, Growing Oshkosh, the City of Oshkosh, ReThink Winnebago and many other nonprofits.

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