An Anatomy of the Southwestern Student
December 26, 2019
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with more than 230 students and alumni since I joined the Southwestern University community in July 2018. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is teaching, mentoring, and collaborating with my intrepid writing interns (hi, beloved padawans!). Another entails spending hours in interviews or grabbing some tea and a meal while getting to know the remarkable souls who attend or have attended SU—their achievements, their challenges, their frustrations, their anxieties, their goals, their passions. Then, I have the remarkable privilege of getting to write their stories. (Well, to be fair, they’re writing their own stories, metaphorically speaking; I’m just the fortunate scribe who gets to literally record mere excerpts of their fascinating adventures for posterity—or for whatever length of time the ever-changing Internet affords us.)
As a content writer whose position resides in the marketing and communications office, I often celebrate the amazing ways that SU has empowered these individuals to learn and grow during their ongoing odysseys through career and life. But as a human being, what I’ve also noticed, just through everyday interactions, is that Southwestern attracts a certain type of student. To be sure, what I present here is not intended to be a generic profile because each individual is distinctive; the undergraduates and graduates I’ve become acquainted with have demonstrated a wide range of worldviews, academic and cocurricular interests, ways of thinking, relationships to the University, and thoughts about the impacts of their college educations. This piece is also not all-encompassing because I’ve met only a tiny fraction of those who have traversed these historic halls. But what I’ve compiled here are just some of my own observations that cut across all those differences—an anatomy of the Southwestern student.
Perhaps the foremost characteristic I’ve noticed among SU students and alumni is their heart—their passion, their drive, and their empathy. Early on in my time here, I encountered students who vocalized their excitement about research and for “discovering the unknown,” as one student put it. I’ve admired musicians and opera singers who delight in computer science and chemistry as much as they relish expressing themselves through their instruments, and I’ve admired go-getters who triple major and study abroad twice or pursue a double major in business and economics while founding a student organization to raise cultural awareness and build community. Each Southwestern student has a different passion (or set of multiple and diverse passions, if we’re being honest), but when they talk about that field of study, that research, or that extracurricular activity, they laugh with joy, their eyes light up, and they talk as fast as the characters in an Amy Sherman-Palladino series. And when someone offers them an opportunity to do or try something new, such as undertake a writing internship in a marketing office even though they’re a biology major who wants to become a genetic therapist, their eyes widen in wonder and curiosity.
Each Southwestern student has a different passion (or set of multiple and diverse passions, if we’re being honest), but when they talk about that field of study, that research, or that extracurricular activity, they laugh with joy, their eyes light up, and they talk as fast as the characters in an Amy Sherman-Palladino series.
I’ve also marveled at the great many SU students and alumni who are dedicated to advancing social and environmental causes both on and off campus, such as those who advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, research and implement plans to improve sustainability, or build schools in Africa to provide access to education for young children. Southwestern students and alumni see the world, and they know it’s rough out there, and they recognize they are fairly protected here on campus. But they go out there anyway, sometimes far beyond their comfort zones, hoping and proactively trying to make it a better place.
So Southwestern is the past and present home of warm, decent people. I admit that I am just one grateful beneficiary of their big hearts: so many students will offer me a hug after a conversation (always asking for consent first, of course, because they care about others’ comfort), and when I see them again in the hallways between classes, we’ll embrace, catch up, talk about our days and upcoming schedules, and make plans to meet at the Cove or grab lunch. And when we chat about their accomplishments during interviews, both the students and the alumni are genuinely and copiously appreciative of the opportunities they’ve enjoyed.
But I’ve also seen this in action in the halls or heard the anecdotes secondhand. Students with cars volunteer to drive those without transportation to the grocery store, to church lunch, and to jobs. Students from Texas will invite their international peers to their family celebrations of Thanksgiving to share the holiday tradition and make sure their friends aren’t on their own over the long weekend. Some comfort roommates when things go wrong at a pre-dental advisory committee interview or help fix a friend’s on-the-fritz laptop when that big paper is due the next day. Others write love letters celebrating the faculty or their teammates and coaches. And alumni meet up with old SU roommates and best friends 20 and 30 years after graduation—something they do on a regular basis because the friendships and relationships they’ve built here are truly lifelong.
They’re also wonderfully empathetic, a quality that we don’t see enough of in this world today (in my terribly cynical opinion). There are so many old, romantic souls at this school, which makes for a very warm, welcoming, supportive place. Sometimes, I think Southwestern is like a living version of This Is Us—but without all the ugly-crying. And I love that.
Now, don’t get me wrong: for all my talk of how warm and fuzzy SU students and alumni are, this University is cultivating some serious brain power. These undergraduates are becoming specialized in areas of study the way that doctoral students do, and I can say that while backed by personal experience. They spout facts and analysis about East Asian politics, macroinvertebrates, and the S&P 500 Index off the top of their heads. They present research about artificial intelligence at international conferences and publish multiple articles in peer-reviewed journals about animal behavior. It’s no wonder so many of them end up pursuing graduate studies at some point after graduation, going on to become professors, architects, and nonprofit CEOs.
At the same time, the students here demonstrate the wonderful effects of a liberal-arts education: they think not just deeply but also broadly.
At the same time, the students here demonstrate the wonderful effects of a liberal-arts education: they think not just deeply but also broadly. They connect concepts they’ve learned in literature courses with projects they’re researching and writing for communications, which would be expected, but they also apply what they’ve learned in geometry and algebra to art and art history. As one recent graduate put it before heading off the Stanford, “Taking classes outside my major and [engaging in] research have given me different perspectives I wouldn’t have otherwise”—and that’s fairly representative of how a lot of students and alumni talk about their coursework and learning experiences at Southwestern.
For years, I rejected the term mindful because it sounded like just another buzzword. I welcome the concept of goat yoga (less so the idea of nap zones in the workplace—that’s a little weird to me still, and no, I don’t think we have those here at SU, although I’d guess that the campus is no different from other schools when it comes to students occasionally falling asleep in the library or in a study lounge). I can also appreciate the value of being mindful in the sense of focusing on only the present, without self-criticism or anxiety, but I can’t really account for whether the Southwestern students I’ve met are all practitioners, successful or otherwise, of meditation and other such techniques.
I’m struck by how so many SU graduates have maintained that ability to self-reflect and understand the world from multiple viewpoints.
However, I do believe that SU attracts students who are mindful in the sense of being aware—of the world around them as well as of their own places within that global community. For example, I’ve interviewed current students who think about their own privilege and issues such as racial and ethnic inequality while traveling and living abroad. That broad social consciousness emerges even more conspicuously when they recount their community-engaged learning projects, such as through our Spring Breakaway program. And when I talk to alumni who have gone on to a wide range of careers, from founding schools across the globe and joining the Peace Corps to leaving the world of fast-paced marketing to renovate and travel in a school bus, I’m struck by how so many SU graduates have maintained that ability to self-reflect and understand the world from multiple viewpoints. That willingness to not just explore other people’s worldviews and beliefs but also respect them may not be universal here, but it is pervasive, and it is an attitude that I think deserves to be lauded.
The students I’ve met want to be hands-on with their educations. Some of the most exciting events that take place on campus are the various annual symposia in which SU undergraduates showcase their artworks, research projects, and posters representing their studies abroad and community-engaged learning. At such events, students have translated their ideas and theories into innovative prototypes and mesmerizing interdisciplinary displays of art. Getting to see and hear how students have developed these independent projects, from inception to completion, really gives you a sense of how engaged they are in creating new ideas and things.
Innovators, makers, doers—their creative spirit is what sets SU students apart.
But even beyond the research and creativity symposia, many students are involved in hands-on experiences that challenge and excite them. Some of them investigate decades-old mysteries and “recover” murals that have been lost to the ages. Others edit musical compositions and coordinate posthumous performances of those pieces. And internships have become far more of an integral part of the college experience since I was in school 224 years ago; it is so gratifying to hear how students in marketing, finance, and, yes, writing internships are applying what they learned in the classroom to what they’re doing in these professional–educational positions. Innovators, makers, doers—their creative spirit is what sets SU students apart.
So there’s this thing at SU called Mouthwestern, which is a phenomenon that those of us who’ve studied or taught at other small schools are familiar with: when you have only 1,500 students on campus, information and rumors fly quickly, so even if they’re not roommates or friends or classmates, the students often at least have heard of peers majoring in other departments or what’s going on with the Greeks, in student organizations, and in other residence halls. Some people love it; some people hate it—usually depending on the specific subject and people involved.
But SU students and graduates are also articulate about the research they’re doing or the careers that they’ve pursued. They’re vocal about the issues they believe in. They are brilliant conversationalists and terribly charismatic. And they demonstrate wonderful senses of humor and can make you laugh—and they can laugh at themselves, which is always a bit of a relief when you meet high-achieving people. In fact, it gets eerily quiet in the academic buildings during holiday, spring, and summer breaks. You really start to miss the laughter and conversation echoing down the corridors when the students are gone, and you can’t wait until they get back.
The SU students and alumni I’ve interviewed and worked with personify a number of inspiring characteristics, from their idealism and dedication to their generosity and warmth.
You may think that I’m writing something akin to a hagiography of Southwestern students and grads. So let me assure you that Southwestern students and alumni are also utterly human. Like the rest of us, they flub presentations and earn grades they’re not entirely happy with. They get nervous (so nervous!) and stressed out (so stressed out!!) over upcoming projects and papers. They wonder whether the job they’ve taken is really the right fit. They hide and cry quietly in bathroom stalls. They get annoyed at their roommates and argue with family. They do and say things they regret, obsessing about those mistakes for hours and sometimes days. They have moments of arrogance or being judgmental. They beat themselves up over failed relationships and career disappointments.
But that’s all part of being human, growing, and learning. In the end, the SU students and alumni I’ve interviewed and worked with personify a number of inspiring characteristics, from their idealism and dedication to their generosity and warmth. I feel lucky to have gotten to know just a few of them so far, and I look forward to getting acquainted with more of them in the future. In the meantime, I wish a Happy New Year to all the lovely people who comprise the Southwestern University student and alumni body.