Learning for a Lifetime of Choices

Refined from President’s blog

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A little while ago, I had lunch with a childhood friend, Marlene.  We have been friends since we were both thirteen years old, and that has been decades ago. Our lifelong friendship began on the Southside of Chicago where we discovered personal commonalities, as we explored the public libraries together and devised many less intellectual adventurers.  On a Wednesday in November 2013,  we met in Union Station in Washington, D. C., and it was indeed a reunion of epic proportions.  Between the two of us there were four children–all with college degrees.    It was our prayer, and our spouses’ too, that we had prepared these talented young adults to lead responsible, worthwhile, and altruistic lives.

When we looked into each other’s faces, we bore witness to a half century of American societal forces that had shaped the lives, and choices of two women who grew-up with limited resources, but who dreamed of nearly endless possibilities.  My friend earned a MBA from a big ten university, and I earned a PhD from a top-ranked national university.  Besides the fact that both of us have done well, by American standards, we also gained so much more from our college experiences than the academic content and subsequent jobs.  The value of our higher education included exposure to options, consideration of diverse perspectives,  and development of skill sets beyond our imaginations.

As we seek to grapple with the finances surrounding colleges and universities, the debate about the value of colleges and universities has reached a louder pitch with proponents on all sides.   As states struggle with competing priorities for revenue, and the economic recovery continues, there is more concern about the value of a college education in relationship to the cost of attendance.  While nearly half of my college experience included the private and well-regarded University of Chicago, it still does seem possible for students to choose from a range of institutions which correlate, as closely as possible, with their family and financial support systems.

Now I know that from a lifelong learner and educator, much of what I think about the value of a college education could be discounted–since I liked learning so much–it did not occur to me to leave the college/university  structured community of learners.  However,  as my friend and I shared stories in Union Station, it also occurred to me how fortunate we have both been to have spent so much time learning from the perspectives of others,  and how our expanded worldviews had influenced the activities we engaged in with our children and probably the choices and lives of our children and their future grandchildren. It seems that an expanded worldview is in itself a legacy–possibly just as precious as an inheritance of a land estate.

Engaging in various structured classroom or hybrid learning experiences also seems to help build a sense of confidence in the learners.  Without a doubt this confidence can be gained from other experiences rather than a college experience, but the efficiency and sequencing of these experiences in a college environment might take years to acquire without the talented and caring professors serving as learning guides.

Thus, one value of colleges and universities, is that we offer options to assist learners enjoy a lifetime of choices and to leave a legacy of options.

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.

Let Us Hear It For Southern Ladies: The Steel Magnolias Have Left Their Mark

Reprint from President’s Blog – September 2013

Let us hear it for the Southern Ladies—Steel Magnolias have left their Mark

When I was growing up in Chicago in the 50’s and 60’s, sometimes a friend or a teacher would indicate that I had a southern accent. Now the intonation that usually accompanied this marvelous observation conveyed to me quickly that I needed to work post haste to disguise my southern accent and to learn to talk “right,” so as not to give-away the fact that my mother was from New Orleans and my dad from Gonzalez, LA. However, I must state that my Southern mother was a registered nurse, seamstress, devoted family person, great mom, and avid church-goer. She supported her three children through college, and in her later life, helped her grown children purchase their dream homes. So, just what was I supposed to be ashamed of?

Over the years, there have been a comment or two about my accent, and I realized that living in North Carolina for over 15 years probably refreshed this accent a bit. However, for the record, southern ladies have taught this nation a thing or two.

One of the first southern ladies that I admired on stage was the incomparable and legendary Pearl Bailey. Ms. Bailey could take any play, or part in the play, to another level, like the Tony she won for playing Dolly in Hello Dolly. I remember how proud I felt when I was able to purchase expensive orchestra tickets to see Pearl Bailey perform for everyone in my family. I earned the money working two jobs. Sitting there, so close, watching Ms. Pearl Bailey performing on stage was one of those special moments in a young woman’s life; it was so easy to be entertained by her style of humor and engaging warmth. Later I learned that Ms. Pearl earned a degree in theology from Georgetown University at age 67, and she wrote several books. Ms. Bailey also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan, and she is buried not too far from Cheyney University in West Chester, PA.

Because I loved to read when I was growing up, I was exposed to some southern women through their writings. Some of these women include Flannery O’Conner, who grew up in Georgia and shared the same religion as I. Her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” comes to mind sometimes when watching the “if it bleeds, it leads” news. Southern writer Carson McCullers, in Member of the Wedding, provoked a great deal of thought about coming to grips with one’s identity and relationships. Additionally, it was through reading that I learned about the lives of other extraordinary women of the south such as Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and Dr. Maya Angelou—a Keystone Honors speaker. Each of these southern women helped to awaken the conscience of a nation through defining moments. The works of Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez helped guide the next generations—all these women have spoken at Cheyney University. Recently, I completed Isabel Wilkerson’s research-based, epic book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which followed and connected families of the Great Migration to our current reality. Ms. Wilkerson has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Since coming to Cheyney University, I have become inspired by, humbled by, and guided spiritually by an unsung heroine and southern woman, Fannie Jackson Coppin. Ms. Fannie Jackson Coppin was born into slavery in Washington, DC, in 1837, the same year that the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney University) was founded by Richard Humphreys and supported, for 176 years, by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). My husband found a copy of Ms. Coppin’s autobiographical book, Reminiscences of School Life, which was published after her death in 1913, and gave the book to me for a Christmas gift—how I treasure that book. Fannie Jackson Coppin graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and became the first African American principal in America at the Institute for Colored Youth known for its extraordinary success in teaching classical education, teacher training, and industrial education to persons of African descent. After serving the Institute for 36 years, Fannie Jackson Coppin accompanied her AME Bishop husband, at age 65, to Africa on missionary work. Coppin State University is named after this southern-born servant leader. Cheyney University has her legacy to uphold.

This discussion of southern came up again recently when it was noted that I just hired a North Carolinian woman as Provost- Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins. Oh well, I guess there is no use trying to explain that it was not the part of the country, but it was the education, background, and belief in the mission of Cheyney University—access, opportunity, and excellence. The Cheyney University community also looks forward to engaging in dialogue with another southerner who will be on campus in the spring—Angela Davis.

Hmm, now that I think about it, I am glad to be southern!