TAMUC Integrating Effective ‘Life Design’ Courses Into Freshman Curriculum

The College of Innovation and Design at Texas A&M University-Commerce seeks to build on a foundation of “Life Design” courses to create a student body that can adapt to challenges and succeed in adult life regardless of career or vocation.

The courses are based on models created by the Life Design Lab at Stanford University. According to the university, the courses use design thinking to address problems related to designing a student’s life and career. They offer a framework, tools, and most importantly, a place and community of peers and mentors to work on these issues through assigned readings, reflections and in-class exercises.

Some course topics include integration of work and worldviews, ideation techniques, a portfolio approach to thriving, designing to increase balance and energy, and how to prototype all aspects of your life.

A&M-Commerce first began its involvement with the Life Design Lab in 2018, when Lacey Henderson, director of Career Development, applied to send a team to a Stanford training workshop to learn more about the “Life Design” teaching methods.

The team included Dr. Yvonne Villanueva-Russell, dean of the College of Innovation and Design; Brad Chilcote, former career coach and current graduate student; and Adrienne Watson, former academic success coach.

Villanueva-Russell immediately saw the potential benefits of implementing these teaching methods.

“I realized that this Design Your Life Curriculum would translate really well to students who are trying to get ready for their first job after graduation,” Villanueva-Russell said. “But I also realized that it would apply equally well to our incoming students. It is really helpful to people who are in transition or trying to solve really complicated problems.”

She added that the curriculum “works well to prepare people to put themselves out there, recover from failure and plan a future for themselves.”

The Design Your Life curriculum is now embedded into UNCO 101, a first-year mentorship course that all freshmen are required to take. The course is unique in that it is taught by a peer-mentor—usually an upperclassman—rather than a faculty member.

“I feel like the Design Your Life model fills out the holes in our curriculum,” Villanueva-Russell said. She adds that the plan is to expand course offerings using this model, especially in majors with highly selective acceptance rates and for at-risk students, where it will have the greatest impact.

The first step in the process is the construction of A&M-Commerce’s own Life Design Lab, which is being created inside the CID suite located at Waters Library on campus.

“Anybody can take part in our workshops, it won’t be restricted to students in the College of Innovation and Design,” Villanueva-Russell said. “This could be our own mini-Stanford on campus here in Commerce.”

The peer mentoring course gives upperclassmen with the desire to improve their peers’ college experience an opportunity to make a difference.

“My freshman year was really rocky for me; I struggled with the pace of some of the classes,” said Quinlan Stephens, an upperclassman leading one of the mentoring courses. “I told myself, ‘I have to help the new students so that they do not struggle like me.’ After being a mentee for UNCO 101, I knew I could use that platform to help students.”

He added that the relationships he has fostered with students have been an extremely rewarding part of the curriculum.

“Seeing that your efforts help someone, and seeing them grow and develop over time is an amazing experience,” Stephens said. “The ‘Design Your Life’ program has been so beneficial to me; it is hard to articulate it. As time goes on, it is still helping me into my senior year.”

Kathy Davies, managing director of the Life Design Lab at Stanford, touted the benefits of the system and said it benefits students greatly.

“College students are facing unprecedented ambiguity. Life design provides a process and way of thinking to tackle change with less anxiety and greater hope,” Davies said. “As one student put it, ‘I still don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I am a lot less worried about it. I have a better idea of what I want, and how to go about pursuing options.’”

She continued: “Life design tools allow students to tackle job hunting, academics and their lives beyond school with concrete tools and greater confidence.”

Learn more about Design Your Life and the Stanford Life Design Lab.