THE BLOG
02/24/2013 10:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2013

Academic Memories as Milestones

Higher education is changing. In a recent article published by the Center for Digital Education, Cameron Evans, the CTO of Microsoft Education, said, "If there's anything that will be significantly different 25 years from today, it's that people won't go to school for knowledge. They will go to school for an experience that they couldn't otherwise have gotten online." It is impossible to know fully at this juncture how technological advances and the changing culture will shape higher education, but one thing that cannot change is our commitment to providing students with what Evans calls "an experience." This experience is much more than knowledge conveyed, or the satisfaction of walking across a stage with diploma in hand. It is a memory that students take with them, a milestone that functions symbolically and practically as an experience that shaped their lives.

Looking back at my own undergraduate years, I can pinpoint three experiences that had an enduring impact on my life. They stand out in my memory as occasions when my education intersected crucially with my personal development. First is an academic milestone, a research paper I wrote which examined the role of power among the women pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The subject has little to do with my work today, but the paper was vital to my development as an academic and a researcher. I worked harder on it than on any other undergraduate assignment, and I acquired skills that I still use: how to engage primary sources, how to advance a novel argument and how to think in relation to other scholars' ideas. 

A paper is the traditional way to engage a student in hands-on research, and my experience confirms it is a good one. Educators should recognize, however, that there are many additional ways to craft memorable academic experiences. (Lectures and seminar discussions may be the bread and butter of higher education, but special projects and assignments are the sugar and spice.) For example, one Gordon College professor invites homeschooled high school students to participate in three weeks of Recreation Activity Days that her recreation and leisure students develop and run. Many faculty design service-learning projects for their students that dovetail with Gordon's partnership with the nearby city of Lynn. Experiences that challenge students to put into practice "on the ground" what they have learned in the classroom can be very powerful, and the milestones they recall most vividly.

Another experience that continues to resonate in my life was serving as president of a student organization. Lessons I learned through my extracurricular responsibilities have helped me as an organizational leader and as a fundraiser. No college memories are more vibrant than those of initiating a new student tradition or cheering on the home team. Student government, intramural sports, event councils and other student-run organizations serve as hands-on workshops in which students develop maturity and experience civic service. A student talent show participant may never again be asked to perform an original dance number on stage, but he will have significantly more poise and confidence as a result of his involvement. And while the loss of a conference championship is a more bitter memory than a win, it still reminds students of the joy and challenge of coming together as a team.

The third college milestone I recall is Homecoming. No other occasion so perfectly celebrates a college's past, present and future. When I returned to Baylor for my first Homecoming as an alumnus, I took Rebecca Ward to the roof of Baylor's administrative building and proposed. It was the right time and place because Baylor was where we had come to know each other. At Gordon, it's tradition after a successful proposal for students to ring a large bell located at the corner of our quad (the bell sounds with curious frequency as springtime progresses). What's always struck me about this is that when students ring the bell to celebrate their engagement, they are likewise acknowledging the way Gordon prepared them for and nurtured their relationship. Homecoming festivities offer alumni an opportunity to reconnect with the milestones of their college experience -- the physical and interpersonal landscape that brought about enduring growth and transformation in their lives. On a larger scale, Homecoming celebrates relationships between the generations of students and scholars who have called Gordon "home."

As educators, it is our privilege, not simply our responsibility, to create unique academic, co-curricular and relational milestones in the lives of our students. College is not just an information dump; it provides experiences that give context, opportunities and a purpose to the knowledge gained. At the core of college education, we help students form memories and encounter transformative experiences. My colleagues and I aspire to create milestones that will stand forever in the memories of our students as experiences that defined their education and shaped their identity.