UC Irvine Launches Innovative Martial Arts Course for Incoming First-gen Students

Leanne Ozaki, University of California, Irvine / The Center / February 02, 2022

In 2021, over 49% of California-resident freshmen at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) identified as first-generation college students. With UCI being the top UC campus for first-gen students for the third consecutive year, we were looking for new ways to engage these students and ease their transition to life at a large public university. That’s why for Fall Quarter 2021, we were excited to offer a new and incredibly unique program for our incoming first-gen students.

University Studies 3: Aikido & Physics is a freshman seminar course that teaches the martial art Aikido along with basic physics principles in a community-oriented setting. This course was formed through a collaboration between UCI’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, UCI Student Success Initiatives, and Budo Accelerator, a local educational nonprofit dedicated to using martial arts training to build resilience, leadership capacity, and a network of peers and mentors that supports students’ academic performance and career readiness.

The program is centered on the revolutionary martial art of Aikido, a modern, non-competitive martial art that cultivates resilience, empathy, and creativity. Aikido emphasizes the importance of collaborative training, which helps to establish a strong sense of community among practitioners as they work together to learn and develop their skills.

As we continue to deal with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, providing opportunities for genuine connection makes all the difference, especially for first-gen students who do not always feel like they have support during the transition to university life.

These positives are why we brought this unlikely partnership to our first-gen student community. While the course curriculum centers around the history, culture, and philosophy of Aikido and the physics behind the martial art, the goals of the course go far beyond this. Through class discussions, small group exercises, and actual martial arts training, students:

  • develop leadership and communication skills;

  • learn to use empathy to create stronger relationships with others;

  • build resilience and self-confidence; and

  • form new friendships and connections with other students, mentors, and Aikido practitioners from around the world.

The pilot course we offered this past Fall Quarter was an immediate success with freshmen first-gen students. Taught collaboratively by Josh Gold, CEO and co-founder of Budo Accelerator, and Dr. Michael Dennin, vice provost for teaching and learning, dean of undergraduate education, and professor of physics & astronomy, the course reached max enrollment in just three days.

Course Impact

Prior to the start of the course, students were surveyed on their knowledge in four areas. The percentage of students who reported good or great knowledge were:

  • Time Management: 22%

  • Public Speaking: 44%

  • Career Options: 22%

  • Working Independently: 56%

Encouragingly, results from a survey administered after the completion of the course showed an increase in student knowledge in all areas:

  • Time Management: 78% (56% increase)

  • Public Speaking: 89% (45% increase)

  • Career Options: 56% (12% increase)

  • Working Independently: 89% (33% increase)

Additionally, in a course reflection survey distributed at the end of the quarter, students reported on the various ways that the course impacted them. 81% of students felt that they connected with older peers or adults who do the type of work they are interested in. 97% believe that they are expected to try hard and do their best, and finally, 89% feel equipped to engage with people who are different from themselves.

Responding to these positive metrics, Gold said:

“Budo Accelerator is thrilled to see the success of our new partnership with UCI and its impact on student well-being, academic performance, and career readiness. Every student from our Fall class requested that we expand the course so it’s now offered year-round. It’s great to know that the students love what we’re doing. We’re truly transforming the lives of first-generation students, and we’re committed to expanding and strengthening the program on UCI’s campus."

Similarly, Vice Provost Dennin expressed his hopes for the future of the course:

“I’m so happy to be a part of this course and the community that it’s fostered. As we continue to deal with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, providing opportunities for genuine connection makes all the difference, especially for first-gen students who do not always feel like they have support during the transition to university life. Looking ahead, I’m confident that we can continue to develop this course and introduce others like it to serve our growing first-gen student population.”

Thanks to the positive reception for the Fall 2020 pilot course, University Studies 3: Aikido & Physics has been confirmed for the remainder of the 2021-2022 academic year. The course has increased student enrollment for Winter Quarter 2022 and hopes to expand to two or three sessions for Spring Quarter 2022.

For more information on University of California, Irvine’s approach, please visit their website here.