DU students encounter the University’s 4D Experience

From their first day on the University of Denver campus through their last, today’s students stand to benefit from a comprehensive initiative designed to connect their passions and purpose to their larger DU experience.

It’s called the 4D Experience, with D short for dimension, and it is, in the words of Chancellor Jeremy Haefner, “the beginning of the reinvention of the student experience at the University of Denver.” 

That reinvention is a work in progress, but some students have already seen what it looks like in the classroom. In fall 2020, many first-year students enjoyed 4D first-year seminars, or FSEMs, that introduced them to the dimensions: advancing intellectual growth, exploring character, promoting well-being, and pursuing careers and lives of purpose. (A long-standing component of the curriculum, FSEMs traditionally kick off a first-year student’s initial quarter at DU. Students choose a course that sparks their interest, while faculty members teach their passions, bringing excitement and energy around intellectual pursuits to the classroom. In addition, FSEM faculty serve as the academic advisors during their students’ first year, helping them plan their DU journeys and make intellectual and personal connections, not just in the FSEM class, but also across all of their classes. Going forward, FSEMs may well incorporate experiences at DU’s new James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus. Please see page 26 for details.) 

“First-Year Seminar is a key partner in introducing our first years to this really exciting, holistic, student-centered way of approaching education,” says Heather Martin, FSEM faculty director. 

In fall 2020, even as the coronavirus pandemic was presenting classroom challenges on a daily basis, the University conducted eight 4D-centric FSEMs, serving 140 students. These homed in on the dimensions, all in hopes of helping students connect and integrate their learning.

“We were really focused on the four dimensions as our content of the class,” Martin says. “We put together a group of experienced FSEM faculty, and we developed the course, and then a different group of folks actually taught the course.” 

After the courses ended, it became clear to Martin and others that the FSEMs, successful as they were, merited some adjustments, including renewed emphasis on what Martin calls faculty “teaching to their passion.” 

With that in mind, Martin and the FSEM team set to work tweaking the initial courses. In fall quarter 2021, DU again offered eight 4D FSEMs, but these were structured around the professors’ research and intellectual interests.  

Nancy Sasaki, a biology professor in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, taught an FSEM in fall 2020 and was so impressed with the experience that she signed up to teach another one this year. Initially, she recalls, she was skeptical about the 4D focus. After all, she is more comfortable teaching about science and microbes than, as she puts it, “squishy” topics such as well-being. Nonetheless, she agreed to teach the 4D curriculum and “fell in love with it.” 

So much so that her 4D FSEM for fall 2021 was designed to serve as a home base and safe space for her students, allowing them to be meditative, playful and to ask deep questions. She has discovered a new passion for teaching the four dimensions and giving her students “the tools to succeed and to make a plan” in their education.

Last year’s 4D Experience didn’t end when the course concluded. In winter quarter, students attended a networking event and/or career fair to begin exploring how they can pursue careers that bring purpose to their lives. In spring, they selected experiences from a menu of opportunities related to well-being. Guided by their FSEM professors and the 4D staff, they were encouraged to think holistically about their educations and the life ahead of them.

In the coming months and years, says Provost Mary Clark, 4D will touch on every aspect of every student’s DU experience, from classrooms to residential life to student employment. “At its essence, 4D is a holistic approach to our students’ curricular and co-curricular experiences, touching upon the many facets of our students’ lives here at DU,” she says. 

Making this happen will require commitment from across campus. Laura Sponsler and Laura Perille are the 4D Experience co-directors. They joined the program in July 2021 and were asked to help the DU community realize 4D’s potential. They hope to create University-wide shared responsibility for student learning and development around 4D.

“One of the things that we’re working on in our new roles is trying to help people think more expansively about the 4D Experience,” Sponsler says. “Think of it as a framework for all of our students … a framework that will help [them] access a more holistic, integrated learning and development experience during their time here at DU.” 

Already, Perille says, “There are more spaces on campus that are making 4D a lens through which they’re approaching their work. For instance, career and professional advancement is creating a new position that is about 4D mentoring.”

For her part, Perille reminds the community that the four dimensions are inherently connected. “You can’t have intellectual growth unless you have well-being,” she says, “and exploring character leads you to think about a life of purpose.”

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