Developing students’ values
When he was a senior at Gustavus Adolphus College, Matt Swenson led a January-term trip to Ocean Springs, Mississippi to help with disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina. "We were there five months after it happened and it was still like a third world country," he said. "I saw how broken our policymaking was and I realized my call to action was to become more directly involved."
Swenson's encounters with people in Mississippi helped him discern a post-Gustavus path. This week he will receive his master's degree in public policy from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Swenson now works as a communications specialist at the Minnesota House of Representatives. He credits the opportunities and support he received at Gustavus with making him aware of his abilities — and his responsibility to make a difference with his skills and talents. "It changed my life," he said.
The 17 institutions that make up the Minnesota Private College Council each play a role in students' values education. How they do it varies, but all consider it their responsibility to guide students in developing, examining and articulating their values — so that they can apply them when making career and life choices. Here are examples of how this happens at three of our institutions.
Finding a calling
Chris Johnson, who directs Gustavus' Center for Vocational Reflection, recalled Matt Swenson's participation his first year in the course, Changing the World: Justice, Action and the Meaning of Life. "The course turned Matt on his head and he spent the next 3-1/2 years being really intentional about figuring out his calling in life." According to Johnson, Gustavus plants seeds with students and then nourishes, fertilizes and cultivates them over four years. "The whole package helped transform Matt," Johnson said.
Gustavus faculty and staff know how to ask the "Big Questions" and then offer students the time, space and permission to reflect on their values, sense of self and needs of the world, Johnson said. The college also gets its alumni involved through its Calling of the Professions programs, sponsored by the Center for Vocational Reflection. Alumni come to campus to speak about their vision of vocation (the Latin word for calling) and how their larger sense of vocation can be lived out through their work, as well as through their families and communities.
These on-going connections with alumni benefit both students and alumni, said Grady St. Dennis, who directs Gustavus' church relations efforts. "We live out our calling in our families, faith, work and civic places; these 'calling' conversations continue way beyond graduation." St. Dennis is leading a group of students and alumni on a trip to Cape Town, South Africa later this month where they will work with a program that serves South African youth. Gustavus alum, Ellen Ruiters, founded and continues to lead the program. She points to the J-term course she took in the mid-1990s, Exploring Your Call, as the place where she was stirred up to serve the world.
"The seeds we plant at Gustavus are not a one-time thing," Johnson said. "They help equip most of our graduates to, in their own way, find what Frederick Buechner calls 'the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.'"
Developing "right relationships"
At Saint Mary's University of Minnesota in Winona, education about values stems from the Lasallian Catholic traditions of compassion and conscience. "We want students to develop 'right relationships' with others and we have a great community to support that," said Chris McClead, director of campus ministry. With its 1,400 undergraduates who mostly live on campus, there is close interaction and many ways students get involved. Student leaders in 16 ministries embody the campus values and are key to passing it on to other students, McClead said.
Serving the community
Saint Mary's encourages service to people in Winona through programs like Make a Difference Day, which this October involved more than 200 students. It also offers opportunities beyond Winona through its SOUL (Serving Others United in Love) trips. In February, more than 100 students will participate in nine SOUL trips around the country.
Stephanie Marnocha helped paint a house on the 2009 SOUL trip to New Orleans. "The homeowner was so appreciative since she hadn't been able to live in her house for the past three years" Marnocha said.
Senior Stephanie Marnocha is going on her fourth trip as a student leader - this time to the Appalachia area of West Virginia to work with a housing rehabilitation program. In her freshman year she went to Montana to work on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. That experience reinforced her desire to be a teacher. "SOUL trips have informed my decision and opened my eyes to the fact that there are so many people in need." Volunteering is pervasive at Saint Mary's, she said, because faculty and staff make students very aware of what's happening in Winona and across the country.
Marnocha notes that her involvement has also had an impact on her parents. "They see how I've been living and now make more of an effort to volunteer themselves. They are very appreciative that Saint Mary's makes these experiences possible."
A Christian focus
At Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, the educational process is intended to help students understand their life's role in the Christian context. What that means is that they help the students understand their unique gifts and talents and encourage them to use them in a way that reflects Christian values. "One of those values is helping others," said Lance Schwartz, director of marketing and public relations. To that end, the college has established the Paul Ylvisaker Center for Personal and Public Responsibility.
The center is an extension of Bethany's educational mission, which encourages students to contribute through community service and volunteerism. "These aren't worldly endeavors, but rather an effort to help those closest to home, where the majority of our graduates will be able to make an impact," Schwartz said.
For example, a large contingent of Bethany students participated this fall in a community raking event in Mankato - raking 29 yards. Just three weeks ago, students donated 1315 pounds of food to a local food shelf as part of a food drive competition.
"I'd like to think the exposure our students receive to these ideas and opportunities while they are here at Bethany will ultimately allow them to be great community members who embody Christian values and principles, Schwartz said.
A vital resource
In Matt Swenson's experience, it takes a lot of time, reflection and exploring to build a life of meaning. At Minnesota's Private Colleges, providing resources that help students think about their lives beyond college is vitally important. And it makes a difference. "Without Gustavus' help, I wouldn't be the person that I am," Swenson said.