There are few experiences more invigorating for a college president than talking to recently graduated students, a school’s newest alumni. I especially enjoy listening to them reflect on what was special about their education and what really matters as they build lives of meaning as young adults. Equally valuable is talking with seniors close to graduation. They are usually even less sure about career plans and their life’s journey but still are insightful about what has mattered most in their undergraduate experience.

Over the last month, as we have celebrated Alumni and Family Weekend and hosted a number of gatherings of alumni, I’ve been fortunate to have stimulating conversations with several recent and about-to-be alumni of Alvernia. Their wisdom is instructive.

One recent graduate spoke with deep feeling about how the faculty in his department had believed in his potential, brought opportunities to his attention, and supported his aspirations. His principal faculty mentor is still a significant influence, even as they now are becoming professional colleagues. Another alum, having returned to complete a college education begun many years earlier (before marriage and children), found that learning was now fun and that her best professors were the most rigorous and demanding ones—“faculty that had the highest expectations of their students and themselves.” A third individual had his life transformed in a different way by his alma mater. Graduate education at Alvernia provided community-based learning experiences and strong ethical preparation for subsequent professional leadership. For him, the accompanying opportunities for private and collaborative reflection promoted additional life lessons.

At one reception, I offhandedly asked a soon-to-be alumnus, carrying a heavy load of courses, which ones he was most enjoying. He responded with passion and excitement, describing two general education courses—neither on topics of prior interest to him. One probed controversial contemporary issues; one explored topics from unfamiliar cultures. Yes, the teachers in both cases made class enjoyable, but as a mature student this young man’s praise focused not on their personalities but on their ability to stimulate his thinking and reflection. The feature article on Halloween in the Reading Eagle profiled such a teacher, our own Sister Pacelli, while the quotes from students in her classes also made the case for electing courses that stretched them well beyond their usual comfort zone and areas of interest. Along with my other recent conversations, they offered testimony to the importance of a liberal education. 

What are some of the results of a good liberal education? Essential is knowledge of human societies and cultures--our country’s own diverse traditions and those of the wider world—and intercultural competence. Other key outcomes are development of historical (and contemporary) perspective, aesthetic appreciation, respect for the natural world, ethical understanding, and commitment to social responsibility and the privileges of democratic citizenship. Certain foundational skills accompany the achievement of communication, quantitative, and informational literacy.  Equally important are several more complex capacities:  the demonstrated ability to think independently and collaboratively, to connect theory and practice, to synthesize different sources of knowledge, to engage reflectively with the “big questions,” to integrate life experience with one’s formal education.  And at Alvernia, we pledge that, at the core of such an  education is an expectation that all students are intentional about clarifying their values and acting ethically, exploring the role of religious belief and spirituality in their lives, and drawing practical inspiration from Franciscan values.  

And the two major ingredients needed for this recipe? Excellent faculty, of course:  skilled teachers who are actively engaged in their subject matter, broadly curious and inquisitive about much else, passionate about student learning, and determined to expect the best of themselves and their students. And also, excellent students: actively engaged in their subject matter, broadly curious and inquisitive about much else, passionate about their learning, and determined to expect the best of themselves and their faculty.

Flynn Files