As someone who has spent his adult life surrounded by young people -- whether in the military, international banking, or professional sports -- one of the principle reasons I chose to take on the position of college president was to get back to my "roots." Simply put, my passion is helping young men and women who combine a remarkable education with the opportunity to strengthen their character. Now, entering my "junior year" as president of Birmingham-Southern College, I have not been disappointed by what I have seen in my students.
First off, they are focused on their education. They understand that they are at Birmingham-Southern to gain an education... not to be trained in a particular subject. Training is preparation for the expected, while education is preparation for the unexpected. My students are educated. Our professors understand that the world is filled with the unexpected and that if our students are to be successful in this world, they need to be broadly educated, not trained. No longer is it good enough to prepare our students to adapt to changing situations, because adapting means reacting to a situation. We need our students to be agile, to anticipate situations, and to be equipped to formulate solutions to the issues that come with the unexpected. All students, no matter their academic focus, need to be critical thinkers. They need to be able to take complex issues, break them down into bite-size pieces, come up with viable solutions, and articulate those solutions in writing or verbally. This ability comes with education.
Second, they understand that character counts. They are eager to take leadership courses, to participate in service-learning, to grab at internship opportunities and to get outside their comfort zones. They are not afraid to talk about selflessness, about moral courage, or about integrity. They understand that it is not enough to have a strength of mind--they must also have a strength of character. They recognize that developing character requires the same intense effort as developing the mind, and comes from making hard choices over time. I have watched them make wrong choices, then come back and make right ones. Sometimes they get hurt... and we at the college recognize that will happen. Our charge is to make sure that they can fail without being damaged. At the end of the day, I find my students to be remarkably attuned to doing the right things for the right reasons. They give me great comfort as I look to the future.
Finally, they are fun. I am amazed at their ability to roll with the punches and to find humor in even the most difficult of situations. It is not that they don't see and appreciate the difficulties that all of us face at some time; it is that they are not defeated by the difficulties. They have a resilience and a commitment to living a full life that enables them to barrel through when things get tough. When they emerge from the whitewater surrounding their difficulties, they look back and find the thrill in defeating the rapids. I love talking to them in the library or on the sports fields or in the theater, and whenever they are living college life to the fullest and enjoying every minute... even when writing a paper at 2:00 a.m.! Simply put, they are a joy to be around.
Now for those who think I am a Pollyanna, maybe I am! But I have seen our young men and women in the worst of times (combat) and in the best (succeeding against what appears to me insurmountable odds) and I am convinced that I am associated with the next "Greatest Generation."