Thursday, November 12, 2009

Veterans Day Reflection: All I Ever Needed to Know about Orienting New Students to College I Learned in the Military

Veteran’s Day has come and gone again. And I am reminded of how much I learned from my military service about helping new college students survive their transition experience. I learned much of this from my two drill sergeants whose names I still remember 43 years later.

One was Staff Sergeant Small, who was about 6 feet, 9 inches tall and whose previous tour of duty had been as a White House Honor Guard. I had never had a teacher so “proud.” And he was my first “teacher” of another race. He had this ability to capture my attention by asking commanding questions. This reminded me of a goal of a goal of a good liberal arts education: that sometimes the question is more important than the answer.

For example he would say: “Listen up: do you want to survive Vietnam? If so, you have to know there are three ways to do things: the right way, the wrong way, and the Air Force way. And I am going to unlearn you the first two, and learn you the latter!”

So, what were my lessons?

1. First we have to tell our students what we are going to “learn” them. Then we have to “learn” them. And then we have to tell them what we “learned” them. And that’s an exact quote from Sgt. Small.

2. At any college or university, there are three ways to do anything: the right way, wrong way, and the institutional way. We must teach the institutional way.

3. Students learn best, like the troops, when authority figures believe they can be taught and that they can learn.

4. When given the choice, most students will chose to make positive choices to learn to do whatever they need to do to survive.

5. Thus students can be taught and learn “survival skills.”

6. New students need to learn a new language of a new culture, and its history, traditions, customs.

7. College students need a “basic training” for college.

8. Ideally, this is an extended, intentional orientation, preferably dispensed in a credit bearing course.

9. Every institution has a mission, and the sooner the student figures that out, the more likely he/she will achieve a successful fit.

This recollection of my learnings reminds me of how nearly 40 years later we selected a military university as an “Institution of Excellence” in the first college year (I feel another blog coming on!).

-John N. Gardner

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran’s Day Salute

November 11th is a day devoted to recognizing our veterans who have served in our armed forces. I am proud to say I am a veteran. I am indebted to my military experience during the Vietnam era because it gave me my career as a higher educator and my first big break with the University of South Carolina, where I began my work on the first year, and still continue some of that work today.

I graduated from college in 1965, and for able bodied, young, college degree holding, men like me there were only these options:

1. Volunteer to serve in the armed forces

2. Allow yourself to be “drafted” in the armed forces

3. Gain a draft deferment through marriage

4. Or obtain a deferment by work for a defense industry employer

5. Or obtain a deferment by going to seminary

6. Or by going to graduate school.

7. Flee to some other country with non extradition treaty for draft avoidance.

Upon my graduation, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I knew I didn’t want to go to Canada, much as I loved that country from living there five years as a child. And I didn’t want to be drafted. And I knew I wasn’t mature enough for marriage, although I had several possible candidates. And I had no interest in seminary. So I chose graduate school. And off I went. But, Uncle Sam had other plans for me. I came from a draft board region of the country where they ran out of non college grads to draft and so they started drafting college grads, including me. So I volunteered for the Air Force, which made me an instant psychiatric social worker, based on my MA in American Studies!

After OTS and basic training I was sent to South Carolina to the 363rd Tactical Hospital at Shaw AFB, Sumter. My squadron commander called me in and told me that his review of my record suggested I had more education than anyone in the squadron except the physicians, and that therefore he wanted me to do some college teaching. I had never before thought of being a college teacher, even though I had been an outstanding undergraduate student, once beyond my first year. None of my professors had ever suggested I emulate them. Amazing. What a poor job they did of recruiting their successors.

But the Air Force was much more intrusive! Two days later I was sent to the University of South Carolina for a review of my credentials, and emerged having been approved to teach six adjunct courses. And, I started teaching my first college course, two weeks later, a couple of days before my 23rd birthday, looking much younger than many of my students, particularly because I lacked much hair. My first teaching was at an open admissions, two-year, non residential campus of the University, very much like a community college, in Lancaster, S.C.

I eventually learned in later work at USC how much the Air Force had taught me (the subject of another blog!) about how to teach people to survive and “transition” into an important new educational experience. I am so glad I am a veteran. For me, it was truly life transforming, and new life giving.

John N. Gardner

Monday, November 9, 2009

Students in Transition

This is the name of a conference that is being hosted by the University of South Carolina for the 16th time, since 1995. I know because I am the founder of this conference series and I write this as I attend the 16th edition. This is really all about a very simple idea. Sort of like bottled water. Or the roller bag suitcase. Why didn’t someone else think of it? Frankly, I don’t know. I am amazed no one else had. I had been organizing conferences on what came to be called “The First-Year Experience” since 1982, and no one had been doing that before. And there was a need to convene higher educators to talk about new students and how to help them succeed. I needed to learn more about that, which is why I organized these meetings—and even more importantly to help other educators.

In 1989 I met a university President, Betty Siegel, at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, who shared with me her keen interest in college seniors, their transition experiences out of college, and how she had designed a seminar to help them do just that. Also in that same year my older son was a senior at the University of South Carolina. And I was thinking a lot about what he needed as a senior in transition, and what my university was, or was not doing to help him make that transition successfully.


I felt so inspired by Betty Siegel, and my son, that I asked her to co-host a conference with the University of South Carolina on the topic of “The Senior Year Experience.” We did so in 1990 and again in 1991, 93 and 94. The response was good, but not good enough to pay the bills. So I decided to roll this focus on the “senior year experience” into a still broader focus: “students in transition.”


Thus, the “students in transition” concept was born and we held our first conference in Dallas in 1995. The response was enormous. For the first time, educators came together to discuss the transition challenges of: first-year students; those in the “sophomore slump”; the transfer student experience; the senior year experience, and more. The key assumption was that college students are “in transition.” And the key challenge for higher educators to examine was really a dual one: how are our campuses organized to help “students in transition”; and thus, how are we in transition, and not just the students?

And those are still the driving questions today, in 2009!