What would the ideal Drexel semester look like? | The Triangle

What would the ideal Drexel semester look like?

Photo by Anushka Khandelwal | The Triangle

In a recently published article, The Triangle revealed via an email sent to faculty from President John Fry that Drexel would be switching to semesters. Upon hearing the announcement, many people had one question: What would a Drexel semester look like? In his email, Fry noted that, “based on the experience of peer institutions such as Northeastern and Rochester Institute of Technology . . . I am reassured that moving to semesters can significantly improve recruiting, retention, and the student experience at Drexel.”

Fry stated that Northeastern University and Rochester Institute of Technology are both peer universities due to their integration of the co-op program and semester system. Northeastern switched from quarters to semesters in 2003 and RIT switched in 2013, making them good models for semester/co-op structure.

In terms of timing, Fry expects the change to be completed in three years. This means that students in the classes of 2027, 2028 and the incoming class of 2029 should expect to experience aspects of the semester system for the first time. 

Northeastern and RIT operate on semester schedules with two summer sessions between the spring and fall terms. For the 2023-2024 academic year, Northeastern started its fall semester on September 6, 2023, and RIT started on August 28, 2023. Classes from past year’s calendars usually begin the last week of August or the first week of September. 

During the fall term, there is a Thanksgiving break, which at both schools takes place from Wednesday to Friday. Both universities ended classes around the first week of December, giving one week for final exams. Northeastern’s winter break lasted four weeks from December 18, 2023 to January 8, 2024. RIT’s official break was from December 23, 2023 to January 15, 2024, a three-week break. Including holidays and finals week, Northeastern’s fall semester lasted 15 weeks, and RIT’s lasted 17 weeks. 

During the spring semester, Northeastern students get a week off for spring break during the first week of March, and RIT students get a spring break during the second week of March. Northeastern’s spring semester runs from January 8, 2024 to April 29, 2024, a total of 16 weeks. Similarly, RIT’s spring semester takes place from January 15, 2024 to May 10, 2024, which is also 16 weeks. Both have a week-long break before the start of the summer terms.

To make the six-month co-op work, both universities offer a condensed summer term which is split up into two sections. RIT has a twelve-week summer term, and students can take classes over the entire term or split it up into two six-week “short session” summer terms. Northeastern’s summer sessions are longer as the summer period is 16 weeks long, making the Summer 1 and Summer 2 terms eight weeks long.

According to the Northeastern co-op calendar, students have the option of completing two co-ops in four years or three co-ops in five years. On the website, they give multiple examples of different schedules students could have. Below is an example of a student on a Spring/Summer I, three co-op cycle at Northeastern. 

FallSpringSummer ISummer II
First yearClassClassBreakBreak
Second yearClassCo-opCo-opClass
Third yearClassCo-opCo-opClass
Fourth yearClassCo-opCo-opBreak
Fifth yearClassClass

This schedule differs from Drexel as students on this schedule at Northeastern get a summer break in both their first and fourth year and are still able to complete three six-month co-ops.

While Northeastern is a mandatory co-op school, they allow students to complete up to three co-ops. Students can replace a co-op with, for example, a six-month combination of study abroad and research, which would still count as “experiential learning.”

Despite Northeastern and RIT marketing themselves as semester schools, they really operate under a trimester system with fall, spring and summer terms. This system allows students to complete a six-month co-op even though there are two four-month semesters. 

Justin Huang, second year cybersecurity major at RIT, had interesting insights into potential schedule implementations that the new Drexel system can utilize. First, while RIT only has one ‘reading period” day before their two week long final exam period, the concept of a reading period in itself is certainly something that can now be implemented by the Drexel semester system. Universities around the country like Harvard and Yale have implemented a week long period after classes end and before finals start, and it is intended to be a period for students to “rest, reflect, and prepare for finals before the semester ends.” Not only can students recuperate from the hectic semester and spend undivided time preparing for their final exams, but students with final commitments to clubs and organizations can fulfill their obligations without the pressing need to prepare for finals at the same time. 

It is important to note, especially with the co-op class schedule of RIT, that students who are on co-op are provided their winter, spring and fall breaks. In the quarter system structure, Drexel co-op students are not formally offered a break between classes and their co-op, prompting many students to go from a six month co-op to consecutive terms of full time classes without breaks. Integrating breaks into the new model will be one step to addressing the burnout currently observed in Drexel students. 

In an email sent to students on May 8, President Fry formally announced that he wants to accommodate the University Advisory Committee’s recommendation to switch to semesters. 

He stated that students would have “greater flexibility and more choices to design their paths based on desired learning objectives and outcomes.” These paths include “the six-month co-op, with up to a total of three co-ops;  significantly more study abroad opportunities; shorter internship options; and undergraduate research experiences.” 

President Fry also highlighted the importance of Drexel’s relationship with its co-op employers. “I want to ensure that we will retain our co-op partners’ full support and participation. We have spent decades building relationships with our co-op employers who rely on Drexel and our talented students. I also want to ensure that the benefits of moving to semesters will far outweigh the financial and qualitative costs. If these concerns are satisfactorily addressed, I will support this recommendation.”

In reconstructing the co-op schedule, constructing semesters to better align with outside internships may also prove to be instrumental to student mental health. In its current schedule, the Drexel spring term ends in the middle of June, which is much after most internships for the summer start. This limits students almost entirely to Drexel provided opportunities which seriously limits the opportunities for professional development and personal growth. 

In an interview with The Triangle, English professor and Writing Curriculum Initiatives Coordinator, Daniel Driscoll, shared his opinion on Drexel’s switch to semesters and what that will mean for both students and faculty. 

“…When I think about classes and the academic experience…I’m in favor of making the switch. I think it could be really good,” said Driscoll. “One thing that will happen is we’ll all be thinking about our individual courses, but there’s larger curricular questions…You’ll be in classes for the same amount of time, but you’ll take fewer courses. So we’ll be thinking about what courses are complementary and combine, how we can both lengthen our courses but also incorporate other things into them.”

Driscoll explained how his writing-focused course curriculum will change: “We can do things like capitalize on a full semester’s worth of thinking instead of just a quarter’s worth of thinking. I think there’s lots of opportunities for deeper and maybe better writing experiences.” 

He also commented on how students may benefit from the semester system because not only will they have more time to grasp their course material, but also more time to develop a relationship with their professors that they may not get in 10 weeks. 

“I think over a semester, it’s a longer time to engage with students for us professors. It’s more time for you students to get comfortable with us, to get comfortable with the material, to get help when you need it. You get that second chance. If things are not going well from weeks one to seven in a quarter class you’re almost all the way through the term. In a semester, it may be bumpy for the first half of the semester, but then you have more time to recover,” said Driscoll.  

Many improvements can be made to the new semester model. Addressing these improvements will be an essential step to moving in the right direction to addressing Drexel’s student mental health crisis. 

Chan Chung contributed to this report. 

This article is part of a grant awarded to The Triangle from the Solutions Journalism Network investigating student mental health at Drexel University.