How Do We Help The Millennial Generation Develop a Sense of Purpose?

Refined from August 6, 2009, President’s Blog

Every year this time, faculty and staff at colleges and universities around the nation are greeting new and returning students for the academic year. For many of us in academia, there is anticipation and a personal sense of renewal with each new class of students.

During the summer months, faculty refresh courses materials, construct course packs, and design their instruction and assessment to respond to the intellectual and emotional needs of this new cohort of students.  Also, during the summer, the admissions and financial aid professionals have been busy answering telephones to help families manage transitions into the higher learning communities of colleges and universities. Other middle and senior managers also have been busy refining policies and procedures that will guide the campus community through the upcoming academic year.

As I participated in, and observed, these various preparation activities, I realized that one of our challenges is to determine how we can contribute to the development of a sense of purpose in our new and returning students. This sense of purpose will, hopefully, be ignited by the general education curriculum and, appropriately, expanded and enhanced by an academic major and interactions with faculty and mentors.

On the surface, many students will attest that they come to college to pursue specific careers, or to increase their earning potential over their lifetimes. However, if we delve beyond their veneers, we discover that many students come to college searching for a future, searching for their passions, and searching for something that is bigger … something that they can commit their talents and affinities to – a sense of purpose. English novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly (1797-1851), the author of the famous Gothic novel, Frankenstein, is quoted as stating, “Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind, as a steady purpose – a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.”

As I reflect, it seems that it is the intellectual and spiritual realization of a compelling sense of purpose that is the ultimate goal of higher education—possibly it is the ultimate goal of the human existence. If we succeed in our colleges and universities, our students will leave with a vision and sense of purpose that is bigger than the acquisition of material possessions or gaining a high-paying first job. Possibly, the sense of purpose they gain at our educational institutions will result in their being a better neighbor, in developing a more enlightened view of the interconnectedness of all humans, and in participating more aggressively in sustaining the environment for future generations.

For those who want to measure the value of colleges and universities, how to you measure this outcome, “a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye”?

Maybe this emotional, intellectual, and spiritual transformation of members of our society is really the quintessential purpose of college–of quality education.

I hope that all of us, who guide the education of college students will also move forth with a steady sense of purpose.

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