As the end of another semester swiftly approaches, I’ve been reflecting on my first months ever at George Fox, back in 1986, when I was a college freshman. That fall was a horrible one, and after folks had told me college would be the best years of my life, I silently suffered, because I couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong and why I felt especially miserable.
Conflicts with my roommate had made my dorm room almost uninhabitable, and I didn’t have the skills to navigate our different communication styles or sleeping schedules. The transition to college academics was also rough, and because I lacked the tools to succeed in classes, I maintained only a tenuous grasp on passing grades. Though I came to George Fox to run cross country and track, a serious medical condition, a major operation, and one week in the hospital that fall signaled the end of my season and my connection to teammates, the only friends I had made on campus.
Lonely, depressed, unmoored: I thought seriously of transferring. Only inertia kept me from cutting ties with George Fox altogether. I’m incredibly grateful that I decided to stay, because my college experience was ultimately amazing; and now, 18 years into my teaching career at George Fox, I can’t imagine anywhere else I would rather be.
Each fall semester for 18 years, as I’ve worked with newly minted college students, I’ve witnessed firsthand their difficult transition from high school to college, and wondered what our institution could be doing to assure others would not have to suffer a freshman year as miserable as mine.
A few years ago, George Fox University made several curricular changes to begin addressing that transition, including our first-year seminar in liberal arts, which manifests the university’s Be Known promise in its curriculum, its structure, and its endeavor to help students feel known, by their peers and their professors. As part of George Fox’s general education package, that course – called Knowing and Being Known (LIBA 100) – is distinctive in its approach, and is one of many reasons I gratefully remain on the teaching faculty at the university.
Nearly every first-year student is required to take LIBA 100. In 16 weeks, students receive a robust introduction to the liberal arts. They learn about developing and employing a growth mindset with their studies, a mindset that will serve many well when they take their first challenging college exam. The course addresses vocation, asking students to seriously consider their gifts, their passions, and the roles to which they’ve been called. They learn about communication and conflict, and how to have difficult conversations with those who are different than them. Students discover ways to take ownership of their own learning, developing the skills they need to be classroom leaders and independent thinkers.
This work is done within a supportive cohort model, so that students can learn intimately alongside 19 other peers, embarking on similar educational journeys and discovering together that the challenges of college are not theirs alone to bear. Two students who have already taken the course serve each cohort as peer advisors, offering their own wisdom and experience as experts who have already survived at least one year of college. Members of the class meet one-on-one with these peer advisors and with their professors, providing one more point of contact for students who might otherwise feel anonymous and unknown.
The course is led by full-time faculty and staff members from across the disciplines, working in partnership to provide the best introduction to college life possible. This partnership has allowed me to teach alongside faculty from vastly different departments than my own, creating a kind of solidarity and collegiality that makes George Fox unique, because we really are in this enterprise together, our shared care and concern for our students the primary motivation that drives us – rather than singular fame, fortune or a fruitful publishing agenda.
Early in the semester, LIBA 100 students read an excerpt from Parker Palmer’s excellent To Know as we are Known, which outlines a spirituality of education. Palmer critiques modes of learning which are based on curiosity or control, and suggests prayerfully learning through love, recognizing that love itself is our highest calling. He writes, “Transformed by love we use our minds to recall and recreate the community in which we were created, to know the world in the same spirit in which we are known.”
Through courses like LIBA 100, students not only discover the impetus for George Fox’s Be Known promise, but are introduced to an important idea that will inform every part of their George Fox experience: that within our community, we are all transformed by God’s love; and that together, we can learn “to know the world in the same spirit in which we are known.”
For a thousand reasons and more, I am grateful to be on the faculty at George Fox University. Teaching this fall’s LIBA 100 course for the first time, my gratitude has been renewed: for my colleagues, my students, and this journey we are taking together toward being known, by God and by each other.
And, I am confident that, should other first-year students have a semester as miserable as mine, this structure will hold them up and support them in ways that are unique, meaningful and distinctly driven by our institutional mission and values. For that, too, I am incredibly grateful.