Friday, May 20, 2011

What does it mean to be a university student?

"Neither my undergraduate nor my Master's experiences imprinted themselves on my heart and in my life . . . . I wasn't heavily involved in anything and I feel no special connection to either of my alma maters.  And I don't feel like a bad person and I don't feel regretful for having walked a different path."

A reader made the above comment in response to a recent blog post by John Gardner (John is the senior fellow for the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and blogs about issues relating to undergraduate education and the first-year experience).  

The poster goes on to make the point that, as educators, we have to be careful not to project our own experiences or aspirations onto the students we associate with (e.g. assume that because our undergraduate experience played out in a particular way, that all the students we work with should have the very same type of experience).  This is an important caution because I see colleagues making this kind of assumption (and catch myself as well) quite frequently.  We are not in the business of cloning ourselves or dictating that all students approach their education in the same way we did.  But, there is a troubling tone to the comment and it seems to suggest that students have the right to be invisible members of a campus and make no real contribution to what takes place there.

A university is,
by definition, a community. Accordingly, when a student makes a choice to enroll at a particular institution, they are not just agreeing to take classes and complete assignments.  More importantly, they are making a commitment to become a member of the university community by participating in its practices and upholding its ideals. Universities always have (and I hope always will)  be gathering places where scholars can come together to both learn from and teach one another. 

Although students will sometimes choose to be "uninvolved and uncommitted," it seems slightly selfish to do nothing more than attend class lectures, complete assignments, and then get out without making any attempt to invest in or contribute to the community of which they are a part. And, it runs counter to the commitment they made when they decided to
"matriculate" at the university.

I'm not saying that every student needs to be in a campus club or go to the football games. What I am saying is that there are diverse ways to become involved on a campus, from service-learning, to studying with classmates, to working in the on-campus burger joint. And, one of our roles as educators is to encourage and facilitate participation by
all students in our campus communities. That may be particularly true of those students who come onto campus with an initial tendency towards being "uninvolved" and "uncommitted." The key, and maybe this is what the poster was getting at, is in extending those invitations in skillful, compassionate, and respectful ways. 

As an aside, it would also help if we stopped "recruiting" students in the traditional ways (e.g. "look at our nice dorms," "we'll give you a laptop," "we have great tailgates") and did a better job of helping them understand what kind of commitment they are making when they make the choice to come to our campuses. "Recruiting" needs to be balanced with a healthy dose of "educating," before they've even stepped on campus or registered for their first class.

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