Bridging the Divide: A Call to Action

In a post on Inside Higher Ed earlier this week, author Russell Olwell discussed the importance of faculty mentoring for undergraduates. This rang close to home as I think back on my career as an undergraduate; the faculty that I had in my first year helped me hone my skills as a writer and taught me how to think critically; skills incredibly necessary for an undergraduate student in the program in which I was entering.

Yet, the post also had me reflect on the work I do now as a student affairs educator. I work in Housing & Residence Life at Virginia Tech and our department is constantly thinking of ways to bridge the divide between student affairs and academic affairs (literally divided by the Drill Field) by bringing faculty to the residence halls. Virginia Tech is home to two residential colleges (Residential College at West Ambler Johnston and the Honors Residential Commons at East Ambler Johnston) where tenure track faculty live in the residence halls and interact with students in numerous ways outside the classroom. Programs like these (living learning programs) are essential to bridging that divide and strengthening undergraduate education.

In addition to my work in Housing & Residence Life, I also work with our Fraternity & Sorority Life office due to my position overseeing our on campus fraternities and sororities. In this capacity, I often think of how to bring faculty mentors into the fraternity and sorority life community. While residential programs across the country move towards greater and greater faculty-student interaction, it is essential for other functional areas within student affairs (e.g. fraternity and sorority life, leadership programs, identity centers, etc) to bring in faculty to provide more and more opportunities for faculty and undergraduate students to connect and build relationships.

The work of bridging the divide cannot be left to residence life programs. While the majority of students on a traditional residential campus pass through the residence halls, many students do not find community within those halls. Thus, other student affairs functional areas need to rethink their work (as residential programs still need to do too) to bring in more faculty, helping to bridge that divide.

Liberal Arts Education and Hope

In the midst of the vitriolic political discourse the United States is currently facing, there rages a debate as to the purpose of education generally and higher education specifically. Many seem to think that higher education should be an avenue to teach skills for jobs and careers while others see higher education as a means to teach mores, critical thinking, and the assist in students’ meaning making capacity. While the debate has not centered on a ‘winner’ the skill based education side seems to have the edge.

A recent study seems to indicate that a liberal arts education – the idea that higher education can teach mores, critical thinking, and assist with meaning making capacity – may yield positive results for liberal arts graduates (outside of just salary). This could be a huge victory for the liberal arts side of the debate, yet the article (and study) seem to miss the major point of one side of the debate. While the study focuses on graduates leadership capacity, orientation towards lifelong learning, and the like, proponents of skill based education do not even value those things that a liberal arts education hopes to instill in students.

The idea that an education should lead to better people is opposed to the idea that education should lead to high paying jobs (though they don’t have to be opposed). The debate will rage on and this study will embolden supporters of a liberal education but fail to impact those that believe a liberal education is not necessary in today’s global society.

Education, though, has to be about making individuals better versions of themselves. Education needs to teach individuals to think critically, the ability to sift through facts and figures, and the idea that two opposed views could be correct is incredibly valuable in today’s hyper-polarized society. The United States election of 2016 saw this debate play out on a national scale as Democrats and Republicans were yelling at one another, assuming the worst of the other. While this is not all explained by the philosophy of education, it certainly is embedded in it. A liberal education is ever more important in this complex 21st century. We cannot simply hope that graduates learn skills to do a job (though that is important – I want my doctor and electrician to know exactly what they are doing) we need to also hope that our graduates can think critically and hold opposing viewpoints. Education – a liberal arts education at that – is the only hope we have to begin to break down the divisiveness that our country currently is faced with.

New Year, New Focus

Happy New Year!

2016 was a busy and growth filled year, which saw the significant decline in my writing habits. As I sit in this coffee shop in Blacksburg, I am filled with a desire to write more regularly on this blog in hopes of continuing to work on my writing, keep up my scholarship and knowledge of the field of higher education.

The posts will take a different approach from here on out. Once a week I will link an article related to higher education and offer a short commentary on it; maybe 300 some words. Occasionally, I will post about something else (e.g. politics) but will try and stay focused on higher education commentary. These posts will have my commentary coming from my lens of a student affairs educator and my work at Virginia Tech.

Here’s to a new year, reenergized efforts to write, and a new desire to stay connected to the field!