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The first-year experience (FYE) is a decades-old programmatic initiative aimed at introducing students to campus culture, improving transitions, and promoting retention, often through a course or classroom seminar. Research shows that FYE courses are valuable for students in general, as well as in specific subpopulations (e.g., international, first-gen, etc.) typically in need of additional support during their first year. Many universities put into practice a first-year experience for students, but what makes such an experience distinct for Christian universities?

In this two-part post, we explore various strategies faculty can weave into their curriculum to make their FYE not about adding Jesus to the educational process, but about animating the entire endeavor with Him. If “a Christian higher education” is meant to imply that the academic enterprise is not merely the same thing happening at any other public university, but instead that it is built with a different foundation and embodies a set-apart telos, then students should be introduced to such distinctives early in their course work. What better way to do this than through an FYE course?

Teaching a Christian Worldview

One of the most straightforward ways to connect the FYE classroom back to the aims of Christian higher education is to give students a framework for seeing their academic experience through a lens of biblical faith. By introducing them to the tenets of a Christian worldview, and then articulating how such a worldview can be applied to their educational journey, students will be equipped—even on a rudimentary level—with a tool to engage college from a biblical perspective as they progress toward graduation.

One method for this introduction is simply to teach students how the narrative arc of scripture—creation, fall, redemption, restoration—is a framework into which their academics can be placed and their college experience can be approached. For example, a student wanting to study business should be encouraged to think through such questions as: Why was business and the study of business created? What is its God-intended purpose? What lingering effects of the fall do we see emphasized in our study of business? What do we see in business that is not as it should be (e.g., moral failings of managers, etc.)? How can I study the field of business in order to participate as a redeeming agent and push back against such effects of the fall? How can I model Christ-like virtues to partner in the redemption of business, and what would fully restored business practices look like?

When students are taught how to reflect on such questions and are shown how doing so fits their academics into God’s story, they are allowed to approach their studies in a way that is truly distinct for Christian higher education. The purpose is not strictly for students to adopt the Christian faith undergirding this worldview—though, we certainly hope our efforts clearly demonstrate the Gospel and pray for any non-believing students—but rather to equip students with a worldview tool that can be used as they advance through their coursework.

We help students practice this process through a simple worksheet with reflection questions to guide them through thinking about their academic discipline with a Christian worldview lens. We then ask students to partner with a peer to discuss and then have a larger class-wide conversation. This think-pair-share approach promotes a guided contemplation that helps broaden students’ view of the unique ways one can approach faith-learning integration.

In Why College Matters to God, Rick Ostrander argues that “a Christian university . . . seeks to provide an overarching framework that gives a sense of purpose and unity for everything from English Literature to chapel to intramural soccer. That umbrella, of course, is a Christian worldview.”1 We argue that the FYE classroom is one of, if not the best places to introduce that worldview reflection as it sets the tone and helps build a foundation—even if only understood on a seemingly surface level—for students’ courses to come.

Pushing Against the Two Lies

Through our FYE efforts, we often encourage students to consider the truth that God created each of them uniquely and in His image. This truth can be challenging for students to fully understand as humans are sinful beings and often define our lives through our achievements and the perception that others have of us. Perry Glanzer discussed these as two lies college students often believe: (1) who they are is defined by their relationships, and (2) who they are is defined by their accomplishments.2

College students are living in a vulnerable, self-seeking, and exploratory time of their life. They are trying to find their identity by pleasing their families, making friends, and fitting in. Fitting in is a complex task for first-year students as many are newly independent and discovering what they really value and need. Their desire for relationships—to define their worth and value based on others—can consume them. Finding community is important for first-year students, but it can easily become unhealthy if they worship those friendships or romantic relationships (or the desire for one).

Further, we see students framing their core identity around their accomplishments quite frequently. As we often hear them agonizing over a failed test or difficult subject, we aim to reiterate that “grades do not define you, they are not eternal, and your worth and value are not derived from them.” While the pursuit of academic excellence as a student is important, the core source of identity through accomplishments is futile. Whether it be high grades, body image, athletic triumphs, etc., none of them will ever be able to capture the identity that comes from Jesus. From Genesis 1, our identity in Christ is the identity source Glanzer mentioned when he referenced the most important fundamental identity blueprint that emerges at the very beginning of scripture.3

The FYE classroom is a prime space to push back against these two lies of identity sourcing. It is an opportunistic place to show Christ as a better alternative to relationships and achievements as core identities and reject the idea that our worth is in those temporary things. It is easy for students to feel that their worth comes from their major, career path, exam grades, clothing, or status on social media. However, we believe that through conversations (often challenging ones) in an FYE classroom, instructors are in a great place to help students work through the identity-related questions often surfacing in a student’s first year.


In an effort to join with God in the creation and redemption of learners and learning, which Todd Ream and Perry Glanzer argue as one of the distinct purposes of the Christian university,4 we encourage FYE instructors to reflect on how their classrooms move beyond any standard first-year curriculum, and in doing so consider the ways Christ might animate the experience for students.

Teaching about the foundational tenets of a Christian worldview and how to use such knowledge as a lens to view the academic enterprise is one approach to animate the classroom with Christ. Helping students see past their accomplishments and their relationships as the core make-up of their identity is another way faculty can accomplish this Christ-animating work for first-year students.

An FYE classroom at a Christian college or university should be intentionally marked by some evidence of faith-integration, and how one goes about ensuring that distinctiveness is important. Tomorrow we will offer additional strategies to employ in this essential, kingdom-oriented work.


  1. Rick Ostrander, Why College Matters to God: An Introduction to Christian Learning (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2013), 24.
  2. Perry L. Glanzer, Identity in Action: Christian Excellence in All of Life (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2021), 26.
  3. Glanzer, Identity in Action, 29.
  4. Todd C. Ream and Perry L. Glanzer, The idea of a Christian college: A reexamination for today’s university (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013), 54.

Ryan W. Erck

Ryan W. Erck, Executive Director for the Division of Student Success at Gardner-Webb University.

Kara Alves

Kara Alves, Director of Success Initiatives and First-Year Experience at Gardner-Webb University.

One Comment

  • Matthew says:

    Ryan and Kara,

    Your exploration of integrating Christian principles into the first-year experience (FYE) classroom is both enlightening and inspiring. The emphasis on infusing the entire educational journey with Christ rather than simply adding Him as an extra component is a powerful approach.

    I particularly appreciate your focus on teaching a Christian worldview, providing students with a framework to view their academic pursuits through the lens of biblical faith. By guiding students to reflect on questions such as the purpose of their chosen field of study in God’s narrative arc of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, you’re not only imparting knowledge but also instilling a deeper understanding of how their studies can align with God’s purposes.

    Moreover, your efforts to challenge the two prevalent lies about identity—defining oneself solely through relationships or accomplishments—are crucial in helping students navigate the complexities of self-discovery during their first year of college. By emphasizing that true identity comes from Christ, you’re offering a transformative perspective that counters society’s shallow measures of worth.

    Your suggestion of utilizing the FYE classroom as a space to push back against these lies and facilitate meaningful conversations about identity is commendable. Indeed, by animating the FYE experience with Christ, instructors have a unique opportunity to guide students toward a more profound understanding of their faith and its implications for their academic and personal lives.

    I eagerly anticipate part two of your post and look forward to learning more about additional strategies for integrating faith into the first-year experience.

    Warm regards,