The College Core: Essential for Augmenting Life’s Potential

The College Core: Essential for Augmenting Life’s Potential

Recently, with some colleagues, I have been thinking, and engaging in dialogue, about the outcomes of a general education curriculum, or Core, at our university and similar institutions. Similar to parents around the nation, we know it is essential to identify, and measure,  the learning outcomes of the college Core and competencies gained from the  overall college experience.   However, it seems fair to acknowledge that it is possible to attain similar learning outcomes from experiential learning outside of a college Core curriculum, but it might take longer, and be less efficient.

Regardless of how the Core is described to prospective students and parents, most Global_Scholarship-03colleges and universities state, in carefully crafted language, that the Core promotes foundational and broad knowledge to prepare graduates to demonstrate a high level of proficiency in communications, critical thinking, analytical adeptness, and global awareness. This knowledge and skills, it is often argued, form the basis for developing important intellectual and emotional readiness for a life of continuous learning through advanced higher education, quickly changing professional jobs, and civic engagement.

One college stated that the three overarching goals of the Core are helping students know the world, engage the world, and understand the world. Another university termed their Core Curriculum — Making Connections. That university states that it “strives to cultivate the range of skills, knowledge, values, and habits that will allow graduates to lead personally enriching and socially responsible lives as effective citizens of rapidly changing, richly diverse, and increasingly interconnected local, national, and worldwide communities.” *

Most of the learning outcomes of a college Core are also aligned with knowledge and skills that many employers also expect from their employees. These include communication skills (listening, speaking and writing), analytical and problem-solving skills, computer and technical adeptness, teamwork, and lifelong learning skills. Not surprisingly, employers, also, want employees to demonstrate a good work ethic.

Beyond the aforementioned, college/university Cores can also help a student gain confidence because he/she is able to understand better personal growth and emotional maturity, to understand others in local and extended communities, and to engage thoughtfully in contributing to our democracy on local, state, and national levels. When you think about the learning outcomes of a college Core, in reference to lifelong learning, career readiness, and engaged citizenry, its lifelong significance extends—like ripples in a pond. Many students transition from the Core more confident in their abilities to think critically—potentially a survival skill for future generations.

*The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, retrieved online from catalog.unc.edu on April 9, 2017.

Wacky Creativity from Diverse Teams

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Graphic from Teerath Garg, Pulse, LinkedIn

Once upon a time, in the Milky Way Galaxy, in the Northern Hemisphere, in a time not unlike the present, I participated in a team project that illuminated the value of diverse perspectives in creating new paradigms, discussing solutions, and in ultimately contributing to intellectual capital and economic development in our region. In order to portray this team’s project accurately, it seems appropriate to disclose that this particular teamwork occurred within a very diverse metropolitan population with participants of very diverse backgrounds, intellectual disciplines, and world views—in an institution of higher education.

Admittedly, in the Northern Hemisphere, and probably in the Southern Hemisphere, too, extraordinary illustrations of the value of teamwork are becoming increasingly common in many industries, and among participants globally distant but connected via the Internet. However, I am relating this microcosmos story because I probably know more about it, and working on the team was intellectually stimulating and affirming for future projects.

So, here is what happened. At a small liberal arts college, with the leadership of the president, we decided to encourage the development of a team to compete for grant funds that would help transform the University over the course of five years by enhancing academic degree programs, engaging students more in experiential learning through co-curricular activities, and heightening awareness of career possibilities for students from on-boarding to obtaining professional careers.  Our charge was also to ensure students were gaining appropriate liberal arts exposure and competencies through the college core and then acquiring specialized knowledge in majors, minors, concentrations, and certifications to compete better in professional careers.

Thus, the team’s responsibility was to work closely with faculty, staff, and industry partners to ascertain maximum alignment between liberal arts competencies of the University and those desired in entry-professions—while at the same time strengthening specific academic disciplines. The steering committee that formed to answer this charge was composed partially of persons with specific work functions and those with interest in the project. What was so remarkable about our team of five individuals who formed the steering committee?

Well, for one thing, in terms of variables such as academic disciplines, life experiences, geographical origins, philosophies, and paradigms about solving problems, the five-member steering committee members and their subcommittees brought different lenses to view opportunities.   Possibly, not too unexpectedly, team meetings were characterized by spirited dialogue, wacky creativity, and openness to listening to the perspectives of others.

Agreed upon pathways definitely underscored the team’s diverse philosophical bents, geographical backgrounds, and disciplinary approaches. Measuring progress by empirical analysis was paramount to all members, and the many ways of gathering data were discussed and debated within the team. Participating in each team meeting was stimulating and energizing—unlike some academic committee meetings. Because of the backgrounds of the participants, we were able to expand our individual perspectives and ease pass our comfort zones, to view our opportunities from the combined lenses of a chemist, an exceptional student educator, a mathematician, a seasoned administrator, an external affairs and business community liaison, and a liberal arts/social scientist. At times, it seemed like our perspectives were evolving into 3-dimensional paradigms—with views that encompassed 360 degrees of possibilities, realities, and limitations.

The team project was successful in obtaining grant funds, in heightening awareness of how the University could both enhance its liberal arts curriculum and work with more alignment internally and externally. One major outcome is that the project’s outcomes will augment students’ competencies for competing professionally in a global workplace.

The original steering committee continues to work together, and it has expanded into a larger group of faculty and staff adding to the spirited conversations and stimulating more wacky creativity.

I am just loving it!

Establishing Intentional and Guided Career Pathways for Students and for Regional Economic Development

As we approach the new academic year in higher education, many of us are keenly aware of the seemingly intractable challenges facing our nation. Some of these are eroding our collective sense of well-being and our confidence in our abilities to achieve a range of goals for students. Thus, it seems more urgent than ever before to undergird the hopes of incoming and continuing students with curricular and co-curricular learning opportunities that will lead to better opportunities for themselves, their families, and their expanded communities.

FMU guidance2Even though I have welcomed new and returning students to institutions of higher education for decades, this year, I especially look forward to constructing guided career pathways through faculty leadership at Florida Memorial University (FMU). Located in the extremely diverse South Florida, FMU, like many liberal arts universities, produces responsible and contributing citizens who will hopefully continue to strive throughout their lifetimes, while illustrating character, leadership, and commitment to lifelong learning.

What is particularly refreshing and transformational about this year is that there is an energized faculty movement to create guided career pathways through curriculum innovation, co-curricular activities (such as early internships and capstone experiences), and collaborations with business leaders to insure that the holistic collegiate experience of FMU’s students fulfills their academic interests and personal upward mobility needs. In order to design guided and intentional career pathways, faculty and institutional researchers are employing regional and national data to identify majors, minors, certifications, and graduate programs that are most likely to lead to gainful, professional employment––and then filling in the gaps.

Like most other institutions of higher education, FMU has its share of student success stories, like the student who, by the time of this posting, will probably have completed her doctorate in radiochemistry. There are also significant numbers of students pursuing graduate study at prestigious graduate schools or beginning their professional careers. However, the faculty-led guided career pathways movement seeks to expose students to more choices for emerging career areas, and expand options in existing areas, as supported by data. These careers are, and will be, important to the economy–careers such as digital communications, cybersecurity, forensics, construction management, and data analytics.

So, as students commence another academic year, it is difficult to not be stimulated intellectually and inspired by this faculty-led movement that is supported by the UNCF and funded by the Lily Endowment. The development of career pathways will also help faculty review and identify specific intellectual competencies and skills that they can measure and certify, as students transition to varied positions and a lifetime of learning to further refine their post baccalaureate competencies and assure their continued professional growth.

Alas, it is time to end this blog and resume preparations for a coming faculty/business leaders forum that will focus on competencies needed by various industries to both guide our renewal as an institution of higher education, and furnish the intellectual capital needed for regional economic development. By this continuous renewal and assessment, we assure our students that they will be ready for the future!

A Recipe For Success in Educating STEM Leaders

Stiffin_Rose MaryGuest blog By Dr. Rose Stiffin, Chairperson, Professor, and Biochemist, Florida Memorial University

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a local science conference. Because it was free, I took my upper level chemistry class. There were only three, so this was not an issue of space, reservations, or anything.

When we arrived, I was glad to see that my students were excited to attend, as this was their first science conference ever, and I was excited because they were. A great day to be had all around, I surmised.

During one of the breaks, an elderly gentleman approached me and introduced himself. Of course, I could not recall his name five minutes later, so there is no way I would remember anything about him now except his age, color, and the words he said to me after introducing himself: “I thought he would be out playing basketball,” indicating the lone young man in my class. The others were young ladies.

Initially, I found his statement amusing, if for no other reason than the young man in question was, in my opinion, short and painfully thin! He did not look particularly athletic to me and I could not imagine him going for a layup or a three-pointer. Then, the true meaning of this supposedly innocuous assumption hit me: my student is black, ergo, he should be out playing a sport. What a leap to make! But that is what this man meant. There were other males there, so it could not have been a place where his gender would have come into question. Could it have possibly been his race? After all, my students and I are part of the vast African Diaspora and the questioner definitely was not.

When I relayed this interchange with my students, they reacted with only vague interest. But I informed them that, because this man’s thinking is not unique, they may face such comments or questions as they travel through life.

One former student obtained a great internship in Texas. He was assigned to do a sophisticated spectral analysis of a molecule. Because his fellow lab worker had never heard of Florida Memorial University, he assumed that the student could not possibly grasp the instrument’s function or data output. He neglected to consider that some of his professors were Drs. Ayivi Huisso, Thomas Snowden, Telahun Desalegne, and me, Dr. Rose Mary Stiffin. I would say our unofficial collective motto is think or sink. The young man did not sink. From that one internship, he got a research paper published with his name as primary author–a distinguishing status that must be earned. He is now an MD-PhD.

When I first started teaching, my one goal was to graduate my freshmen class of science students. After that, I honestly had no thoughts. Just graduate them and see this as a major feat in my life as a so-called role model and mentor. One of the first graduates became a medical doctor. Then, another, and another, and another… In fact, since this first graduate, there have been approximately 95 of them, majoring in (pre) engineering, (pre) nursing, chemistry, or biology who have earned graduate degrees/professional degrees. We have produced engineers, molecular biologists, plant physiologists, dentists, pediatricians, obstetricians, nurses, pharmacists, pharmacologists, chiropractors, and microbiologists working at the CDC.

This means that, on average, we graduate six students yearly who become professionals in their field of endeavor. I’ve built a ‘wall’ upon which I place the names and photographs of these achievers as a testament to future students that ‘if they can, then you can, too.’

Is there a recipe for success? Well, nothing beats hard work, we can all agree on that. Communication helps, not simply with the students, but with other professors as well. If one student is failing physics, but making an A in biology, we discuss the professor’s practices, teaching methods, and how the student is assessed. Rarely has there been a student to fail one class and pass another with an A. Thus, we have continuity in addition to frank discussions. We do focused activities–reading and discussing science, and exploring the applicability of the work–that other universities deem ‘too difficult’ for the students and beyond their capabilities.

One of our former students visited last week. He is doing great. Married, a father, and a much sought-after consultant in the pharmaceutical industry. “To what do you owe your success?” I asked, not considering what his answer would be, just being naturally curious. He said that it was the science and theory he learned here, the ability to think critically, that we instilled in him here. Those were the qualities that propelled him to success. In one form or another, many of the professors here have heard the same words.

Oh, and that young man who should have been “out playing basketball?” He is a well-respected physician. The other two students? They both have their PhDs and are working in STEM/health areas–actively making a difference in the health of thousands.

From Specific Competencies to Career Pathways

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Recently, some faculty and staff colleagues at Florida Memorial University submitted a proposal to compete for a Career Pathways grant. The purpose of this national competition was to encourage institutions to partner with business and industry leaders to refine academic programs, curricular, and co-curricular experiences to assure that students leave with competencies needed in specific workforces and careers. The grant’s overarching assumption is that more collaboration between industry leaders and faculty would lead to clearer career pathways for students from academic programs to current and emerging disciplines/workforce needs.

While this, in itself, is not a new idea, the grantors appear to be echoing the sentiments of many students, parents, employers, and taxpayers regarding the thorny transitions from academic degree programs to desired employment.

Ironically, nearly a thousand years ago or so, it was common for younger persons seeking to acquire specific competencies to work alongside skilled craftsmen until they could demonstrate mastery. Thus, there was a closer and more discernible link between specialized knowledge, experiential learning, and competencies related to entrance into specific professions and trades.

Nearly a millennium later,  after the multiplication of universities, degree programs, certifications, accreditation organizations, unions, and more formalized apprenticeship and internship programs, the link between learner and mastery of specific competencies seems to have eroded. Educators and policy analysts regularly point out varying disconnects between the learning outcomes of high school and the admissions requirements for college. Others note similar disconnects between college degree outcomes and competencies needed for admission into well-paying jobs.

Probably because of the costs involved for individuals and families in pursuing a college education, the expectation is that the investment will guarantee the acquisition of specific competencies that in turn will lead to well-paying careers and middle-class lifestyles.

According to some,  “credentialing” has gone amok in the 21st century. Instead of facilitating a clear pathway from higher education to a career, some colleges and universities have been viewed as generating a proliferation of degrees that load students with irrelevant courses, leaving them with burgeoning debt, and not closer to well-paying careers. Further, families have observed that students seeking entrance into specific careers and the job market, in general, find themselves confused and facing what many view as a fragmented array of educational options and undefined competencies from secondary school through advanced education.

Education stakeholders such as the Lumina Foundation, America Council on Education, and the Lilly Foundation, to name a few, have sought to increase transparency and clarity in credentialing in higher education by engaging in a national dialogue about the need for clearer paths from secondary schools to specific careers.

Thus, the work by faculty and staff at Florida Memorial University to clearly describe degree competencies and engage in dialogues with industry representatives is a strong step in the right direction.

Americans: We Are Strengthened by Our Diverse Perspectives

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Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, President, Florida Memorial University

Most Americans have been involved in, or heard, conversations about diversity. The topics swirling around the concepts of diversity are broad and deep. Diversity, demographically speaking, describes a range of variables employed to describe human beings—and if you attempt to list the distinct characteristics, you will probably omit a few descriptors.

Sometimes, unfortunately, we focus on the differences when reporting statistically on academic achievement, family earning, health, and so forth. Admittedly, we need to be informed about how our policies, tax dollars, and governmental interventions affect the majority of Americans and citizens with specific characteristics. Sometimes, however, segmenting our population into diverse groups can be utilized too peremptorily to imply hierarchical ranking. However, measuring some outcomes related to specific human variables can be helpful in promoting the attainment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all—as proclaimed as self-evident in our Declaration of Independence.

Like many other Americans, my concept of diversity has also been expanding as I interact with persons who share different characteristics. I recall when I served in academic affairs at a regional institution that enrolled, made accommodations for, and graduated students with characteristics often referred to as physical disabilities, my personal definition of diversity expanded. What I learned from those students has changed my perspective on diversity and broadened my understanding of courage—for life.

At Florida Memorial University, I have, once again, thought about the concept of diversity. Even though Florida Memorial University is known as a Historically Black College or University, there is a great deal of diversity among students, faculty, and staff that enriches us all. The opportunity to work academically with such a diverse range of faculty encompassing  every descriptor possible is invigorating. Faculty bring perspectives and life experiences from 33 countries including America.  When an idea is introduced at a faculty meeting, for example, we are able to discuss it from experiences that faculty have had from vantage points outside of America, from different disciplines, from family worlds that encompass unique mixtures of world cultures from times chronically different, and from their experiences in a very diverse region of South Florida.

Similarly, in meetings with students it is easy to appreciate the mix of the numerous cultures. Students bring perspectives from many countries including Brazil, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Portugal, Paraguay, Senegal, Chile, Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jamaica, Colombia, and Nigeria.  In many respects, the diverse characteristics of students and faculty at Florida Memorial University under girds everything we do. Now, as we highlight the accomplishments of the faculty, identify our centers of excellence, and enhance our responsiveness to South Florida, we will move forth with a broader understanding of human experiences. This broader understanding will be an asset as we employ our diverse characteristics to prepare our students for a competitive, and very diverse global community.

Legacies of Courage and Love from the Silent Generation

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Joined by Trayvon’s family, (from left) Jahvaris Fulton,
Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, the legendary
Harry Belafonte is honored at Trayvon Martin’s
21st Birthday Celebration Banquet in Miami.
(Photo courtesy of Geri R. Vital, ©2016)

Recently, my husband and I had the pleasure of hearing Harry Belafonte, Jr. (who will soon celebrate his 90th birthday) enthrall an audience at the Trayvon Martin Foundation’s Fourth Annual remembrance dinner in Miami, Florida, sponsored by Florida Memorial University and other stakeholders. The Trayvon Martin Foundation is located on the campus of Florida Memorial University.

Even though Mr. Belafonte informed the audience that he had recently experienced a stroke and that he was on medication that affected his memory, his nearly 30 minute, extemporaneous speech was still a phenomenal gift to us. Looking around the ballroom, I noted that the audience was lifted a bit higher by his audacious courage, by how he promoted social equity throughout his life with his talents, his inspiring work, and by his still ardent call for us to commit to positive social action, as our daily guide.

Mr. Belafonte, and many of those he interacted with (such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Reverend Jessie Jackson and many others) are/were members of what is sometimes called the Silent Generation. When you look at the altruistic accomplishments, the courage, and the legacy of some members of this generation, they were anything but silent—they spoke eloquently through their deeds and built foundations for a stronger America.

However, each year we lose more of these trailblazers and, thus, we look to our college students and younger adults with hope that they will step forth and carry a torch of audacious hope to broaden and deepen our human connectivity through intellectual discourse and positive social action.

My husband and I feel fortunate to have been able to interact with some of the special humans in the Silent Generation such as the incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou, Pulitzer Prize poet Gwendolyn Brooks, humanitarian Harriet Fulbright, historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, activist and academic Angela Davis, Mayor Harold Washington, the Honorable Andrew Young, heroic Tuskegee Airmen, priest-activist Father George Clements, heavyweight champion and philanthropist Muhammad Ali, and many more inventors and innovators, teachers and scholars, scientists and statesmen.

Admittedly, many of members of the aforementioned and others in the Silent Generation lived controversial lives and colored outside of the lines. As time has demonstrated, these lines are temporary boundaries that continue to change with time, through intellectual realizations and the transcendence of the human spirit. And, of course, the Silent Generation Americans were only humans!

We have marveled that lives of courage, sacrifice, and concern for others seems to have transformed these mere humans into legends. Even as they are undoubtedly contemplating the conclusions of their earthly existences, these legends of the Silent Generation seem to stand tall, despite advanced age, and vigorously employ their lives’ wisdom to heighten awareness for today’s youth in order to inspire actions that will result in an even better America and more peaceful coexistence in our global community. They have shown us the power of lives lived with altruistic purposes, and now these stalwarts are demonstrating how to bow out with dignity and grace.

Listening to their life stories–replete with challenges, missteps, and victories–and seeing a world continuing to transform through their perspectives is a special gift to be held close to the heart and deeply treasured. Though these remarkable people who have illustrated the great potential of human lives might be a bit weathered by their journeys,  their actions still serve as a clarion call for us to shake off our complacency, focus a little less on consuming, look up from our hand-held devices, and take more active roles in advancing the progress towards broader social justice, greater fairness, and respect for all lives among our global neighbors.

Holding these treasures, and the inspiring life stories of many others, close to our hearts—We thank you!