Years ago, driving through Oklahoma, I stopped for gas. In those days, attendants pumped your gas, and my attendant was a high school student heading for college. When he learned I was a college professor, he asked if college would be better than high school. I asked what motivated his question and he cited discipline problems and unruly behavior by classmates who hated high school.
My own high school experience was in sharp contrast to his, but, more importantly, I could assure him that I had never had a day as a professor when I felt I was more of a guard than a teacher. I encouraged him to anticipate four years of enthusiastic growth with other highly motivated, hard-working, and interested students.
As we enter the Fall of 2021 at UConn, I am pleased to say that I believe our new and returning students face that same optimistic future that I envisioned for him. Our students are not only interested, but interesting. They come together from different places with different specialties and goals.
At the University of Oklahoma, that gas jockey would experience a student body with a rich array of diverse backgrounds and experience: farm kids, urban dwellers, first-generation college students, and children of wealth. At UConn, that was true then and it is true today. Students, along with their parents and other supporters, anticipate four years of engaging ideas, engaging people, and progress toward becoming our best selves.
As the years pass, I reflect on his experience and the leap from high school to college. One key feature is the voluntary, intentional nature of college. High school is mandatory. College is a choice. It’s not exactly a free choice, since family, tradition, and guidance counselors all channel the student one way or another. Importantly, the whole college class is there by choice. Students have actively competed for restricted seats.
So, college is ‘education by intention’ in many ways. The student has struggled for the privilege of attendance. The family is allocating scarce resources to enable the experience. In high school, the education happens to you as you trudge from one class to another, with limited choice and many unenthusiastic fellow travelers.
In college, you choose within broad limits. Get up and go to class, or not. Take this class, or not. Argue into the night about ideas or watch TV. Your growth is the product of your choices. Your growth is intentional.
As college educators, we aspire to help young people become their best selves. But, in large part, the quest is their own. The university can arrange a buffet of opportunity, a virtual feast to support student growth. The students must choose how to fill their plates, day after day. Lest the metaphor be misunderstood, let me emphasize that the buffet includes curricular and extra-curricular activity. Clubs, band, athletics, and the student newspaper all play vital roles in the college experience. As educators, our goal is to provide access to a “balanced diet” that nurtures the body and soul.
I am delighted to watch as the Fall of 2021 unfolds, and to see our students face all the usual challenges of college, albeit compounded by COVID-19. I am heartened by the dedication and commitment of students, faculty, and staff as we work together to minimize the risks and maximize the growth. Together we can do great things.