In Their Words

issue 03 | fall 2014
A View from the Hill - Fall 2014

Shortly after Commencement, I received an email from a new graduate who recently had started a prestigious training program. She wrote to say that she was thriving. “I came with an automatic advantage over my peers,” she wrote. “At Denison my courses and professors molded me into a well-rounded citizen who knows how to think critically and solve problems by looking at situations from multiple perspectives. I am prepared to engage in discussions on controversial topics because I have been taught to listen and respect others’ opinions, form respectful and intellectual responses, and then properly articulate my views. I have been exposed to aspects of history, philosophy, research, countless authors, and contemporary issues that many of my peers have never heard of. I have learned how to develop deep, meaningful relationships with both peers and faculty members and how to maintain those relationships. Denison has given me the confidence to speak my mind and challenge others. Denison has taught me to be proud of who I am and where I came from, but that I should value, embrace, and learn from those who are different.”

Her email struck me, because it speaks to why higher education matters and why Denison is a great college. It also speaks to a few of the big issues that seem to be floating around the media as they address the current state of higher education.

First, Denison does a fantastic job of helping students learn to think for themselves. One of our senior faculty members describes Denison as a place that instills self-determination in students. We do not teach students what to think or how to live their lives; we teach them how to think and give them the tools to build their own lives.

Second, Denison students know how to listen, hear, and learn. In a world plagued by the inability of people to hear a different view, our students often seek alternative perspectives as a way to sharpen their own opinions.

Third, our students excel in challenging situations, and they are willing to step up to perform. The student who sent me that email finished by stating that other members of her training program sought her out for advice, especially on the performance aspects of the program, in which students stand up and present. Our students are focused on a range of academic interests, and they are deeply immersed in campus activities as athletes, artists, and community builders. In the midst of this varied experience, they are challenged to actively engage and perform. There are very few students at Denison who are not engaged and challenged in a variety of ways both inside and outside the classroom. So much of higher education in the U.S. continues to be passive. We sit in seats while people talk at us. We sit in stadiums and watch other people perform as athletes and artists. Denison, however, is a place for active learning.

To think for oneself, one has to be exposed to a range of different views. At Denison this happens as students are trained across many disciplines. This breadth runs counter to the trend in most of higher education, which is pushing students into narrower and narrower programs.

Intellectual breadth also develops as our students are exposed to a range of peers. This is one of the advantages of our location. Given our Midwestern base of students, and strong Northeastern, Northwestern, Mid-Atlantic, and growing Southern and international populations, we have students with vastly different life experiences and worldviews learning from each other.

Shortly after I received the new graduate’s email, a senior member of our faculty wrote to me about the pride he took in watching some recent alumni perform at a public event. He wrote that watching the group “reaffirmed how effective we are at turning out graduates who are poised and engaging. I was struck by the facility with which our alumni performed. While this is not atypical for Denison graduates, it is extremely rare among other young people. I felt extremely lucky to be at Denison.”

That goes hand in hand with another note I received from one of our athletics coaches. “At our best moments, we provoke, inspire, and demand of our students. We challenge them to get out of their comfort zones, move away from our myopic view of the world, and take a chance on believing they might have more to offer than they think they do,” he wrote. “We do self-discovery well.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Published November 2014
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