First-year experiences enrich college life

A college president reflects on his daughter’s college leave of absence

“We’re not as far apart as you might think.”

That’s how my younger child, Sophie, reconciled our differing perspectives on the value of a traditional college education in a recent conversation. Sophie, a second-semester sophomore at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast, was getting ready to board a plane to Guatemala to spend the next 14 months working with a nongovernmental organization. Her decision to take a leave of absence from her formal education has given me pause, both as a father who cares deeply about his child’s life, and as a relatively new college president who must think about how to help students like Sophie integrate their off-campus experiences into their college life.

Sophie previously volunteered as a teacher with the same agency, taking a five-month pre-college gap term that proved transformative for her. She gained enormous independence and grew in self-confidence in ways that I, as her father and as a college president, never imagined possible.

Over the past two years, she and I have spoken often about the value of her experience in Guatemala and how it compares to what she’s gained from her chosen college. Many of the things she expected to get from the college experience—for example, a sense of deep fulfillment and connections that would set her up for success in a chosen field—came instead from her experience abroad.

As her dad, I am proud of the work she has done and how it helped her grow. As a president, I wonder how we might better develop first-year experiences that bring such meaning to a student’s life.

I often say that colleges like Carthage and my daughter’s college offer students a transformational experience. Students get individualized attention from faculty and staff to guide them as they discover who they are and who they want to become. Sophie’s experience, however, makes me wonder if we are delivering on this promise for all of our students, or if we are missing the mark in helping some students become the best versions of themselves.

It also makes me ponder why colleges don’t provide more “off ramps” for students at various points to accommodate the pursuit of experiential learning. While high schoolers historically took time off before college for financial reasons, the rise of the more intentional gap year gives students an opportunity for experiences such as travel, service, internships, etc. before they start college.

This experience is valuable even if the gap doesn’t come before the first year. Perhaps it’s not feasible until later in some students’ college careers, after saving money or finding out what they’d like to explore or getting some academic requirements completed. Colleges need to do more for students who decide that their gap year should happen after their first, second, or third year of college.

In the first six weeks after Sophie returned to Guatemala, she helped develop programs for parents to ensure the sexual health of their children, and for teachers to discuss difficult issues with students. Now she is recruiting participants for the sessions, writing blog posts, and planning a fundraising trip back to the United States.

From a parent’s point of view, Sophie has found a passion and has dedicated herself to an important cause. From the collegiate point of view, she is gaining valuable skills: analyzing, synthesizing, writing for different audiences, engaging in intercultural communication, and learning about marketing while gathering compelling stories for current and potential funders.

It’s essential to have an adviser who is trained to help students select courses that provide additional context and meaning to their out-of-college experience.

There is enormous value, both personally and educationally, in what she’s doing, and, ultimately, colleges and universities need to provide smooth pathways to those opportunities throughout a student’s college career. This involves providing financial resources and developing relationships with organizations to ensure the experience matches the student’s needs and goals.

Co-curricular programming to help students build professional skills would also prepare them for the engagement with organizations. This programming could be designed to provide assistance to help address and overcome the challenges students will encounter as they begin, continue, and finish projects at the organization. This might include advice on how to approach the relationships with their supervisor and peers, time management and organizational strategies, and appropriate workplace decorum.

Institutions should consider the logistics of courses, curricula, and extracurricular activities and how to best facilitate student engagement with outside organizations. The most common work schedule likely conflicts with class schedules, team practices, and meetings for student organizations, but we should look for flexible, creative solutions. For example, institutions could work with the organizations so that some of its work can be accomplished on campus.

Students must feel supported by the institution, by faculty and staff, and by the student culture. This is, in part, accomplished by designing opportunities for them to discuss their experiences and weave them into their curricular work. It’s essential to have an adviser who is trained to help students select courses that provide additional context and meaning to their out-of-college experience.

Reassuring me that our perspectives weren’t as far apart as I initially thought, Sophie agreed that there are valuable things to gain from the college experience—and that students should engage with a wide variety of topics. She believes, like I do, that colleges need to do better at helping students leverage out-of-college experiences once they re-enter the classroom setting.

As a father, I would feel more settled knowing that Sophie would return to a college prepared to support her transition back and help her make the most of her Guatemalan experience.

As a president, I know I need to do more at Carthage to make sure that returning students find a sense of meaning and belonging that I want my own daughter to have. That’s good and timely work for all of us who are presidents of liberal arts colleges to do.

John R. Swallow is president of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

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