In the spring of 2021, a group of eight first-year students embarked on a one-credit Paideia Connections class led by Professor of Psychology Erin Crockett and Professor of Religion Laura Hobgood. This iteration of Paideia Connections engaged the same group of students for four semesters while the group integrated in-class and out-of-class academic and non-academic experiences into the discussion-based course.

Crockett and Hobgood modeled the course during the first lessons by demonstrating how to present texts to the class, interact with each other, and reflect respectfully. From there, students would bring a reading, a text, or even a video to class to discuss with one another.

“There were discussions over everything,” Hobgood said. “From how you can or can’t engage in certain types of comedy to magic and illusions to medical ethics.”

Bringing together students with multiple perspectives from different disciplines is the hallmark of the Paideia Connections class. They learn to create connections between what they have experienced outside of the classroom along with what they learn in their courses.

Though the class only met eight times a semester from their first year to their junior year, the students became a close-knit group. They brought in complex readings or texts they studied in other classes, and there was a significant change in these scholars. They learned how to think critically.

“There’s generally a big shift between first-year and third-year students,” Hobgood remarks. “They’ve decided what their major is going to be or changed their majors. Some have studied abroad, others have become more involved on campus, and some work in local businesses across Georgetown. There’s been a lot of growth.”

A key difference between this Paideia course and those that came before it was dealing with COVID-19 on a college campus. These students graduated from high school during the height of the pandemic. They were sent home and completed their senior year online, so they were familiar with distanced learning.

When this course began in the second semester of their first year, they met each other with masks on, occasionally outside, and spaced six feet apart. However, this didn’t hinder the connections made between them. The pandemic became part of their discussions, everything from the creation of vaccines to what was happening on campus.

Part of the Paideia Connections curriculum is finding a project the group can work on together. Because some of the first meetings took place outside the classroom, discussing their love of the outdoors became a focal point. They spent the first semester of the course figuring out what project they wanted to complete, thinking it would be something outside and on campus.

However, when a call came from Senior Director of Integrative and Community Engaged Learning Sarah Brackmann, searching for students interested in working with a federally supported housing complex in Georgetown to create a garden for the community to use, Hobgood brought the idea to the class. They enthusiastically agreed because the project was a natural extension of the group’s interests.

“Our class did everything from creating PowerPoints and posters, presenting ideas, surveying the land, as well as going door to door to propose the idea and get support,” Romania Ntoti ’24 said. “We planted flowers to show that we are committed to the garden that will beautify the area and add to the community.”

When the class returned to the community after pitching their garden idea, they planted a butterfly bed to be used as a pollinator garden and invited the community to see their work. One resident, whose home is near the garden, volunteered to water the plot. The students left the garden in the hands of the community with the hopes that the residents would maintain it.

Students planting the community garden

Ntoti said that this class helped her understand the meaning of Paideia. She didn’t quite comprehend the philosophy when she got to Southwestern as a first-year student. However, through engaging conversations with classmates, she has been inspired to be open to new ideas, sees how different perspectives overlap and knows that her education is interdisciplinary. She appreciates Hobgood and Crockett for facilitating a class where students learn from one another over an extended period.

“A small intellectual community that can have engaging conversations is very valuable,” Hobgood said. “Particularly in a group of this size, everyone’s voice can be heard.”

The Paideia Connections class is the embodiment of a liberal arts education. It empowers students to think critically, be collaborative, and search for innovative solutions to challenges they face.