What We Owe Our Students
This year, as another college commencement season wound to a close, it occurred to me that commencement is a time unlike any other. I was, in fact, at a loss to think of another season or occasion that induces such thoughtful pondering of the future and what it will hold for so many young people. Will they find the work they want? Will they be successful in their chosen careers? What kind of lives will they lead? Are they ready for what life is going to send their way? Will they be happy?
As I am both a father and a college president, I may ponder these questions just a little more than the average parent. In fact, it feels like I have a few hundred children graduating every May whose futures I contemplate. For many graduates and their parents, the question of employment and career loom largest. The family just made a significant investment in four years of study and education. They hope that it will pay off with a meaningful first job and a successful career for the graduate. I hope for the same and more.
We have reached a point where college is too often perceived as little more than vocational or professional training. All the privileges and honors conferred with a degree, seemingly, must now include a guarantee of high earning potential. Should this be a concern? The average college graduate earns nearly twice as much as the average high school graduate over the course of a lifetime. Yet, preparing our young people to land that first job or conveying the knowledge and skills necessary for a career is but a part of an institutions obligation to its graduates. It is my greatest hope as a university president, and as a parent, that all institutions of higher learning meet an additional obligation we have to our young people: preparing them for service.
We owe it to our studentsand the future well-being of societyto prepare them to be bright, moral and courageous leaders. Such leaders achieve great personal success, but not at the expense of others. They may reap significant financial rewards, but they also respect the commonweal and give where it is needed. Hopefully, they will recognize injustice and have the conviction to do what is in their power to correct it. These individuals possess none of the myopic defects so endemic to large sectors of our society. Instead, they see and strive for the personal and social benefits gained through service to others.
Colleges and universities have a wealth of opportunity and resources to engender this kind of attitude and behavior in their students. Foremost among them, student-outreach may be framed by academic coursework. Students who perform outreach in connection with a course are practicing the pedagogy of community-based learning, also known as civic engagement and service-learning. Students engaged in this type of academic experience apply theory they learn in class to a project that connects them to a community partner or issue. This methodology has multiple benefits. While maintaining rigorous academic standards, it increases student knowledge retention by introducing application, gives them experience bringing their knowledge to bear on real-world problems and helps provide solutions to problems facing society and local communities.
This spring, nearly half the students at Southwestern University made significant contributions to the Georgetown and Central Texas community through outreach activities driven by student organizations and academic coursework. These activities, performed by Greek sororities and fraternities, special interest student organizations, Paideia Scholars and as part of academic courses, amounted to roughly 18,000 hours of collective work in a single years time. Organizations that benefited from student service this year include: Partners in Education, Extended School Enrichment Program, The Caring Place, Georgetown Police Department and the Williamson County Crisis Center.
I believe that such devotion to service bodes well for our future. Higher education has obligations to both its students and the larger society. In providing students with the means to apply their knowledge in a manner that will benefit communities beyond the academy, colleges and universities can forge successful individuals while, at the same time, securing a strong community and a just society. The promise of such a future would make for a great commencement address.
Jake B. Schrum 68
President, Southwestern University