Monday, November 7, 2011

Fall: That Special Season for Beginnings and Endings

John Gardner

Last week was Halloween for the external culture and for the internal higher ed culture: it was midterms. When I started college it was 13 years before the Buckley Amendment to the Privacy Act. Those were the halcyon days for college officials who could and did send home midterm grades to parents of students like me. This was a motivational strategy. And my first grades were terrible: 3 F’s, 2D’s, and 1A (physical ed — I was a varsity athlete). When my advisor personally handed my mid-term grade to me he told me: “Gardner, you are the stupidest kid I have ever advised!” I didn’t know what I was going to do about those grades but I knew I had to do something about getting another advisor. Which I did. My old advisor went on to become a college president in Texas. My new one got me through college. I owe him a great deal, and I told him so repeatedly before he died.

But both pre and post that modification of the Privacy Act, this has always been a special period for college students to focus on beginnings and endings.

It seems that for most of my life, I have been “beginning” something in the fall: when I started nursery school, K-12, college, graduate school.

I was inducted into the US Air Force in an October.

And sometimes ending something in the fall: I finished my Air Force tour of duty (as a psychiatric social worker) in an October.

I started my full-time college teaching career in fall. And I started at the University of South Carolina which was my true career shaper and shaker, in the fall.

And I started with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, our current non-profit higher ed “corporation” in October of 1999.

And that fall was also when I started living in my adopted state of North Carolina.

So my outdoor hikes in the mountains of western North Carolina on the weekends, especially in October, are a perfect period for my reflections on beginnings and endings. I am privileged to be a member of a profession that keeps getting to begin again and again, every fall and at other times too.

The fall is also a time when our students realize what they have lost, left behind, what has died (their former lives) and what Humpty Dumpty cannot put together again.

Some years ago I met at one of our First-Year Experience conferences a psychology professor from The Defiance College (OH), Dr. Davina Brown. As she let her story unfold in her session which I attended, I learned that for a number of years she had worked in a large, urban, hospital, where she had done pastoral, clinical counseling with patients and their families. As she related it, that meant dealing with people who were grieving. After a sufficient time at this she decided to leave this context for her practice and sought a more “normal” population to work with—which she thought would be traditional aged college students who would not be into grieving. Wrong. Think again.

So she took a job on the faculty at this college which had a first-year seminar which required the students to keep a journal. Because she was a new and untenured faculty member she was required to teach this course. She told us how it didn’t take reading the journal entries for too many weeks to realize she was seeing shades of what she left behind in the Cleveland hospital: grieving. The students were writing about their lives left behind, their losses, which had not yet been replaced and regenerated by meaningful components in their new collegiate environments. I was very taken with this epiphany and asked her to write about her observations. She did so and we published her theory about the grieving process in the first year of college in our Journal of The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

So fall is a good time for us academics to take stock of our own life mileposts. And it is a good time to ask our students to do the same as they end and as they begin.

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