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What You Should Know About First-Year Interest Groups

What is a FIG and why should you join one? Learn more about this new trend on college campuses in the US and Canada and how FIG initiatives are helping students get their studies off to a great start.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Student Tips
What You Should Know About First-Year Interest Groups

College isn’t just about what you learn in the classroom. It also comprises a number of other aspects, including applying classroom learning to the outside world, interacting with other members of a diverse academic community, and supporting personal development and independence. One initiative aimed at helping students get off to a great start across all of these measures? First-year interest groups (FIGs), AKA learning communities.

Here’s a closer look at this growing trend on college campuses in the US and Canada, along with why international students, in particular, have much to gain from participating in the program.

What Are First-Year Interest Groups?

First-year interest groups are programs designed to help new undergraduate students adjust to their studies. According to the Association of American Universities (AAU), “A FIG is a "learning community" of about 20 students with similar interests who are enrolled in a cluster of classes together. The courses in a FIG are linked by a common theme, and the faculty member teaching the main seminar course of each FIG helps students discover the interdisciplinary connections between and among the classes.”

The Benefits of Joining a FIG

The popularity of FIGs is growing at universities throughout North America, and with good reason: The benefits of belonging are profound, starting with the connections you’ll make through your FIG.

Says U.S. News & World Report,“For prospective international students, first-year programs can provide an immediate network of friends, particularly since the courses place domestic and international freshmen together.” In other words, for those looking to build a community of friends, there may be no easier or more efficient avenue through which to do so.

“I joined one this year and it was a great way to get to know other people and I made some wonderful friends who are still close to me today,” enthuses one Reddit user. Echoes another of his experiences as a FIG participant turned FIG instructor, “It's a lot less intimidating trying to make friends when you see them at least once a week, and I always encouraged my students to study together for their exams and saw some friend groups form.”

The takeaway? Even if you don’t find your best friends in your FIG, you may find invaluable academic support. “Even though I didn't get close with anyone I was able to create fantastic study groups and always had someone to walk to class with,” says another FIG participant.

FIGs also offer the chance to dig deeper into your areas of interest alongside like-minded students. And while most lower level undergraduate courses are massive and impersonal, FIGs are the opposite -- meaning you’ll also have more opportunities to share and exchange ideas. You’ll also have the opportunity to interact directly with professors - a major boon for first-years who might otherwise be nameless faces in the crowd.

And because FIGs are ungraded, don’t count for your degree, and have liberal withdrawal policies, they’re also a great way to get a closer look at a prospective major.

If you’ve already decided on a major, meanwhile, participating in a FIG can help you get a running start -- not only in terms of the material you gain access to but also the people. Familiarity with a professor in your field can be invaluable when it comes to gaining entrance to a sought-after class or getting a reference for an internship or summer program.

FIGs and International Students

While FIGs are open to all students, they’re particularly beneficial to international students who gain both academic and social foundations in the program -- and grow in confidence in the process. As one first-year interest groups coordinator told U.S. News & World Report, “[FIGs] create a safe environment for international students to practice their communication skills, voice their opinions and ideas, share their perspectives and ask questions.”

And since we all know practice makes perfect when it comes to language fluency, the value of FIGs as a tool for working on language skills is undeniable.

Regardless of your background, adjusting to college can be a challenge. Not only can joining a FIG -- either as a domestic or international student -- ease the adjustment period, but it can also help you begin making the most of the college experience.

Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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