Elmhurst College In Depth

What Will You Stand For?

That's the question posed by Elmhurst's new first year orientation. The College's dean of students explains how the program aims to build academic skills while helping students to grapple with meaningful questions.

It’s move-in day on a typical college campus. First-year students and their families arrive, bearing all the essential equipment of college life. Some bring not one but 
two cars filled with belongings. They bring stereos, TVs, laptops, iPods, X-Boxes, and cell phones. They bring sporting goods, books, bedding, and shelving. They bring so many clothes in so many suitcases that it seems like a large crane might be needed to lift them.

You and I might have doubts about the necessity of some of the things these new students bring with them to campus; but it is clear that the students bring these things because they believe they will need them. These are the things they identify as essential to success in college. But will these things still seem as important when the students leave the campus as graduates?

Ask students what they will need to succeed in college and many will think of the physical belongings, the “stuff” they will bring. But it is the less tangible things that students must be most selective about when determining what to take with them from the campus into the world.

What are the values that are so fundamental to their daily lives that they simply cannot live without them? As students acquire more and more “stuff,” it becomes increasingly important for educators to help them pare down their inventory of “necessary baggage” and identify what is truly essential. In essence, it is our responsibility as educators to help students learn to travel lightly.

It is also our responsibility to ask some big questions of ourselves: What makes an institution worthy of the trust citizens place in it to educate their children and promote the public good? Are we advancing our mission if we graduate accountants without principles, scientists without moral sensibility, and journalists without judgment? Is disciplinary knowledge enough, or is there evidence to indicate otherwise?

One of our chief missions as educators is to help students identify those values and skills that will help them most throughout their lives. In fact, we believe that this mission is so important that we seek to begin fulfilling it from our students’ first days on campus. That is one of the reasons we have developed an innovative new first-year experience at Elmhurst College, one that asks students to consider what truly matters to them.

In 2007, we launched a pilot first-year seminar program under the leadership of Alzada Tipton, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, and Michael Lindberg, associate professor and director of first-year advising. Focusing on broad interdisciplinary topics, the term-long, full-credit seminars are designed to engage students in their own education and to provide them with a chance to reflect and think critically about complex issues. We began the program with four first-year seminars; this year we expanded to eight. We plan to extend the experience to all entering students next fall.

In 2008, we introduced an intensive orientation for first-year students called Big Questions: What Will You Stand For? In partnership with the first-year seminars, this orientation aims to achieve the dual goals of building students’ academic skills and helping them grapple with questions of values and meaning.

Students participating in Big Questions arrive three days prior to the official move-in day for first-year students. In small groups, these first-year students—teamed with a student-affairs professional and a returning student—explore the role of values in their lives, learn about some of the resources and skills they will need during their time on campus, and begin to integrate themselves into the College community, building relationships that will last well beyond their time at Elmhurst College. They engage in community service projects, working with organizations such as the Northern Illinois Food Bank and Feed My Starving Children. (During the 2008 orientation our students completed 312 hours of community service.) They also discuss a common reading. For this year’s orientation, the reading selection was A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind, about the journey of an honors student from a Washington, D.C., public school to the Ivy League. These readings and discussions help establish an environment for intellectual exploration that continues into the school year.

Once they complete their orientation, the first-year students move on with their small-group cohorts to begin their fifteen-week seminar, led by teams made up of a faculty member and a student-affairs professional. The aim of the first-year experience—both the orientation and the seminars—is to help students make the transition to college life, to introduce them to the core values of an Elmhurst education, and to begin equipping them with the intellectual and analytical skills they will need. In short, their aim is to educate the whole student.

College students are eager to ask questions about themselves and their values. A recent survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found that two-thirds of first-year students say they want their college to play a role in their personal development. The same study also draws attention to the interest of students in larger questions of purpose and meaning, with about three-quarters of college students reporting that they are personally engaged in a search for meaning and truth. The college years are the time when students begin to think most critically about what they want to do with their lives. This is not just a matter of picking a profession. As Paul Parker, the Baltzer distinguished chair of religious studies, was recently quoted in the pages of this magazine: “Beneath every question about ‘What should be my major?’ is ‘What are my values and how do they play out?’”

Observers have said the current generation of students is defined partly by their affinity for community service and civic purpose. They are notably altruistic and open-minded about diversity. Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor who is now a professor at the University of California, says, “The young people I see at my university and at other universities are more involved with their communities, are volunteering more, are more concerned about what’s going on around them than any generation I’ve ever seen.”

Reich adds, however, that today’s students are indifferent to political battles. Their engagement in service is very local, and as a result, it doesn’t seem to have carried over into significant civic and political participation. Nor do they always find inspiration from cultural and business leaders. Ethics scandals involving business giants like Enron, Tyco, and Global Crossing have compromised corporate credibility. High-profile examples of plagiarism and unethical scientific behavior have sullied the academic and intellectual worlds. The ethical crisis playing out on a national stage has sent clear signals to students that even people who are in positions of influence and power, in essence, cheat.

Institutions of higher education can help students to navigate their world, establish a solid values foundation, and set a higher standard of behavior for themselves—one that is often lacking in the world around them. In recent years higher education has placed a great deal of emphasis on preparing citizen-leaders. Most of us who work in higher education would like to think that we’ve never strayed far from this central mission: turning out better people. But as we survey the world around us, we feel a heightened responsibility to graduate individuals who have acquired not only disciplinary expertise but also the critical thinking skills and habits of mind that will help them contribute to their professions and communities, and will empower them to work for the changes they believe the world needs.

A recent report of the Kellogg Commission states higher education’s challenge this way: “The biggest educational challenge we face revolves around developing character, conscience, citizenship, tolerance, civility, and individual and social responsibility in our students.” Meeting that challenge requires the efforts of the entire college community.

The educator Sharon Parks has written about the importance of “mentoring communities,” in which students develop by having many mentors and role models. Preparing students to lead meaningful lives is not solely the job of faculty, or solely the job of student-affairs professionals. Providing students with a values-based education that will help them to become principled citizens requires a campus-wide collaboration that draws on the unique experiences and perspectives of a community of faculty members and student-affairs professionals. Elmhurst’s Big Questions orientation—indeed, the entire first-year experience—is an example of such a collaboration.

What do students take away from this intensive orientation? Desiree Collado, Elmhurst’s director of student success, puts it this way: “Today’s students are faced with ethical dilemmas daily. It is our hope that through this program, we bring students into the College and create for them an environment where they can develop the skills and dispositions to be thoughtful campus community members and also, more broadly speaking, principled citizens. Ultimately it is our hope that Big Questions will provide a solid start to the student’s educational experience, contributing to the preparation of the graduates our society desperately needs—engaged citizens who know what they believe and are willing to link thought with action to make the world, or their corner of it, better.”

Our students tell us that the program is meeting these ambitious goals. Eighty-eight percent of the participants we surveyed indicated that Big Questions has helped them to understand what is expected of them as an Elmhurst College student. Eighty-two percent indicated that their involvement with their Big Questions group helped them to critically reflect on values and values conflicts. Some called the orientation a life-changing experience. “I had never examined my values under a microscope like this before,” one student told us." Another said, “I learned what I value most and that I should use those values to guide my actions.”

Our students are hungry for an education that asks them to scrutinize, analyze, defend, and perhaps rethink their values. That education should begin in their very first days at Elmhurst, and should draw on the unique skills and perspectives that faculty, student-affairs professionals, and the students themselves bring. As Larry Braskamp, an educator and Elmhurst trustee, has said, “It takes a whole campus of whole people to develop whole students.” The new first-year experience is a key part of our effort to realize that vision.

Eileen G. Sullivan is Elmhurst’s dean of students. She came to the College in 2007 after prior administrative service at Loras College, Bowling Green State University, and Northern Illinois University. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastern Illinois University and her doctorate from Bowling Green.

For more information on the Big Questions program, please contact Desiree Collado at dcollado@elmhurst.edu.

Photo by Emily DeWan

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