Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Reunion Anyone?

John N. Gardner
President

I can’t believe it. I am headed this weekend for my 50th high school reunion. I love reunions.  I have been to every one—both my high school and my undergraduate college. I think a lot about what it makes some former students want to return to reunions, and others very content to skip them. Obviously, this is a commentary on personalities, life histories and stories after school, and on the school experience itself.
I return to see old friends—out of fondness and curiosity. I return to rekindle old memories and to reflect on my life.
I return out of loyalty (a truly passé quality in early 21st century American life). I return to pay respects to those few on the faculty and staff who invested in me. I return to renew certain pacts I made with myself about what kind of an adult life I was going to endeavor  to have.
And I think a lot about what were the qualities of those two institutions that make me want to return. And that turns my thoughts to the characteristics of colleges and universities now. What if we were to create a type of college experience where no matter what the type of college, and its student demographics that our former attendees and graduates would want to keep returning? What would we have to do to engender this reaction? And who would they return wanting to see?
That second question is pretty easy for me to answer based on my own experiences and those of most of my peers. When former students return to reunions, other than wanting to see each other, they want to see some of their faculty. Too bad administrators and staff - hate to say it - don’t pack ‘em in at Homecoming and reunions. When I was a practicing college professor I actually would ask myself: “John, what would you have to do for your students (or this student) to make them want to come back and see you at Homecoming?”
So what would we have to do, what could we do at any type of institution to make students want to return?  I suggest a simple list:
  1. Affirm their self worth and dignity
  2. Help them develop and discover a new and preferable identity
  3. Get them really excited about learning and about seeing how much they could learn
  4. Creating opportunities for them to experience vigorous interaction with their peers from which lifetime relations could and would emerge
  5. Celebrating their accomplishments
  6. Being there for them when they needed us
  7. Intervening when asked and sometimes when not asked
  8. Engaging them in powerful and meaningful rituals, rites of passage
  9. In some ways, it doesn’t really take much
  10. Setting a compelling example for adult fulfillment yourself and urging them to emulate some of your values, beliefs, practices
  11. Showing them that they too could make a difference
  12. Simply always remembering them, calling them by name, showing respect
  13. Let them know I/we REALLY cared about them, and for them
One of the things that I have liked the best about my career working with higher educators who want to improve student success, is that they are the kinds of educators whom  former students want to come back and see at reunions—to let us know what they have amounted to—and, yes—to say thanks.