Friday, October 8, 2010

I Have Seen the Future and the Future is Us

I have visited over 500 campuses in my career and after visiting a place I always leave with some kind of dominant impressions implanted in my brain. Last week I had such an occasion.

I visited McAllen, Texas, and South Texas College. McAllen is a border city with Mexico, in a region just inland from the coast and known as “The Valley,” south of Houston. While Texas has had community colleges for decades and some really big and prosperous ones in Houston and Dallas for example, this community did not get a community college until 1993 when South Texas College was founded with a founding President, Shirley Reid.

The assumption had been amongst Texans with the power of the purse, that this region didn’t really need a community college. Why after all, these locals, large numbers of them from recently across the border, were just going to be laborers at best anyway. So why bother? Thank goodness that has changed.

Before the college was founded, unemployment ran as high as the mid 40’s. Now, while admittedly the community has been negatively impacted by the Great Recession and the fears of cross border drug related crime, nevertheless, graduates from the College are finding employment in highly remunerative fields which are providing entre into the great American middle class.

But what amazed me the most was this: from zero students in 1993, the enrollment is now in excess of 30,000 students, with over 2000 employees at six different locations. The College held all campuses convocation to hear an annual address from their firebrand leader and there was no room large enough on any campus to accommodate all the employees.

While in town I took a late afternoon jog in the mid 90’s late September heat. I do this to stay ahead of all the young people who want to take my place. Actually, it wasn’t so bad. There was a lovely tropical breeze blowing off the not too distant water. I ran on the shady side of the main street, maybe 20 blocks up and back and passed many other pedestrians like myself. The city was bustling and I heard much conversation, but not a word in English. And I was the outsider. I was the “minority.” I rarely am that, but know what to do as I lived in Canada for five years when I was a kid and truly learned what it meant to be a “minority.”

So what did I see and learn on this visit and run? I learned that McAllen and South Texas College are the future. The future is here and it is us. We are creating a whole new kind of country.

And I loved observing the indigenous. All the working people I interacted with in the hotel and restaurants and then on the campus—well, they had hustle. They were finding dignity in their opportunities, their work, their roles. They showed initiative, respect, manners. They were gracious. It made me want to come back. It made me optimistic about our future. I’m glad I went.

-John Gardner

Monday, October 4, 2010

Memories are made of this!

There is no denying it, my 25 years as a director and professor in a first-year seminar program and course had a great deal of influence on my understanding of and thinking about college students, and the larger academy. But for the last eleven years my work has been focused laser like on the larger higher education community and how to improve how it influences student success. However, I still find myself constantly thinking of ways to directly influence students. And the other day I had another inspiration in this regard. So this blog is really going to return me, very briefly, to my days as a first-year seminar instructor when I was constantly looking for new pedagogies of engagement.

For six years at USC I worked with another full professor, Jerry Jewler, to co-direct University 101. Jerry came up with many wonderful ideas to strengthen our course. And one of them was the concept of “weekly letters.” Now keep in mind this was in the era (1983-89) prior to e-mail. And while we had long practiced “journaling” in our University 101 course, Jerry adapted this to the idea of having each student write their instructor a “weekly letter,” the old fashioned way. And the instructor would “frame” the focus of the letter. Each letter was required to be no longer than one page, have an introductory paragraph, body and conclusion. And each instructor was required to read the letters and return same, manually, to the students at the next class period, with feedback. The whole point of this was to use this writing as a personal and private platform by which to develop a relationship and also to be a kind of “early warning system” to alert the instructors to potential problems for which some kind of intervention might be appropriate.

One opening fall term, I asked the students to write their weekly letter on this topic: “What is the most significant thing that happened to you during your first week at the University?” Two of my students wrote that their most significant experience had been that they had been raped. How would I have known had I not asked?

Where in the world am I going with this blog? Well, to the present, and then back to the past, and then to the future.

The other day I received in the mail from a dear “kissing” cousin of mine, a woman about 70, a packet of handwritten letters, which she had discovered in a treasure trove of materials set aside in an attic by her late mother, my former aunt. These letters were those I had written my aunt in my later high school years, first year of college, senior year, first year of graduate school, Air Force days, spanning not quite a decade.
At first I was reluctant to even look at one. But then my wife, Betsy Barefoot, started reading them one by one, and quoting from them liberally. So I got my courage up and ventured in myself.

I have found this to be an extraordinarily powerful and meaningful experience. As I have written previously, I know I am “aging into wisdom.” But then isn’t that an objective of all stages of education?
I had all kinds of reactions:

1. What I know now that I didn’t know then.

2. Then the jury was out; now it is in.

3. What were my developmental issues then; how was I handling them?

4. My attitudes and outlooks struck me as the same as they are today.

5. Character gets formed early and deeply.

6. Communication is a lifetime pattern. I communicated then as I do now.

7. I really cared about relationships. And I still do.

8. And more.

As I was reading these I couldn’t help but think: wouldn’t this make a wonderful exercise for students in a first-year seminar course? Have them write some “letters” (e-mail would be fine) to people in their lives whom the students would ask to save these messages and at some later point in life share them back with the sending student. Part of the value of this, of course, would be the thought process the student would have to go through now to tell the significant others just what they, the students, thought was the impact, meaning, import, of the college experience now. Of course, this is a strategy to engender a more powerful and deeper learning: reflection.

I suspect that students would enjoy both the initial process and then the retrospective years later. And they would obtain additional practice in reflective writing. They can never write enough, or too much. That was and is a core belief of Jerry Jewler and me.
John N. Gardner