University of San Francisco’s MUSCAT program integrates life design into work with first gen, diverse college students


The Muscat Scholars Program at the University of San Francisco serves incoming first-year, first-generation and diverse college students. The 2018 staff is comprised of a program director, graduate student coordinator, 11 continuing student peer mentors, and 53 first-year scholars. Richly diverse, the Scholars are 75% first generation, 98% students of color.

Our prototype course started quickly, with the 11 peer mentors, held in two-hour sessions over three days during their training period before the summer bridge. We wanted to test the material not only on how we could tailor the design thinking process to a diverse student population but the impact on community building, a major feature of our program. We learned quickly that getting students in a space to design required a willingness to encourage and nurture the wild ideas. In a community that values inclusiveness, we needed to make sure that our efforts included creating a container and spaces that allowed them to deeply engage with the material as well as supporting each other as they co-created their plans.

Taking the prototype feedback quickly in hand, we started our second prototype, this time to the 53 first year students during the bridge program. Held over three two-hour sessions in the evenings of their two-week pre-college program, we utilized the peer mentors as section facilitators to help the students with their work.

We ran a prototype during the the Psychology of Success class in Fall 2018 for 15 students in MSP. Typically taught in a standard seminar format, we drew upon the resources for the DYS course and taught a Design Your Hilltop course, revising the timeline to better fit a 15 week, 50 minute class time.

Finally, we did a 5 hour design thinking workshop for graduating seniors to get them to start thinking about life after USF and how to take advantage of the many resources before they start their last semester at USF.

We learned many things during this process, namely the importance of design thinking in helping first-generation college students develop frameworks and thoughtfulness around career, major, and life exploration. Many first-generation college students lack social and cultural capital in the college space. Accumulating the tools and developing the networks required for personal and academic success can be challenging in an environment that doesn’t lend itself to creating spaces for underserved populations to develop and flourish. Programs such as the Muscat Scholars Program and many bridge-type programs in higher education are spaces that allow for underserved students, typically first-generation or students of color, to thrive, complete with support, mentoring, and foundational work such as design thinking embedded in courses to help them succeed. By teaching and emulating design thinking, students are able to understand how to problem solve in a human-centered way, using empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

We also learned the importance of creating containers both in facilitating the work and encouraging students to work. Following the timed curriculum as well as using music that is both current and engaging to help streamline working periods helped students get a sense of timing and got them to relax as they sang and danced their way through projects. We learned that space matters - in spaces where the room was conducive to 53 designers and their mentors to work, collaborate, and challenge themselves, it went well. In our last and final Design Day, the space didn’t work very well and the flow felt very off. We’ll have to work on that next time. We earned that students who were willing to throw themselves into the process gave the room energy, while the ones who were hesitant needed to be drawn out more and at times given space to think outside and come back in. A challenge for us is with students who are uncomfortable with rambunctiousness and noise (design work is invigorating!); students should be prepared for the environment if needed. Alternative workspaces/times might be better for students with sensitivities.

Moving forward, we would like to continue the work we’ve done and fine tune it, eventually teaching students to become facilitators in the Design Days during the program. We need to expose sophomores and juniors to this as well as they make the most of their time here at USF, preparing for career/graduate school. We would like to consider the possibility of having a Design Reunion, following up on the many goals that students set forth for themselves during the summer bridge. We are excited about the possibilities that exist with design thinking and look forward to learning and designing more.

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