We've been talking in our faculty meetings about what makes Luther College distinctive and I've got an easy answer: the students. I've taught at Luther for 24 years and it's finally dawned on me that our strongest and perhaps least publicized (though not unappreciated) asset is our students. They're terrific! I don't mean they're all terrific academically–though many are–but by and large they are terrific human beings. They are generous, empathetic, involved, and eager to explore and embrace the world. And they're fun to teach because they want to learn. But perhaps more than any other quality, they care for and about each other.
Last year I was about to start a class when I noticed a young woman in the front row who seemed on the verge of tears for whatever reason. Clearly she was not having a good day. Her friend–or perhaps just an acquaintance–reached across the aisle and put a gentle hand on the young woman's shoulder. That was just enough to encourage her to compose herself and enter into the emotional and intellectual space of our classroom and even contribute to discussion during the hour.
I see this sort of compassion our students have for each other all the time, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than on study abroad trips where the strains of travel and being out of one's comfort zone affect all of us yet create the context in which our students form incredibly strong bonds in a short amount of time.
Beyond their care for each other I see them also care for the world. When we go to South Africa we take the class into a squatter's camp where our partners on that side have set up a weekly soup kitchen–outside. The dire poverty of the people living in the squatter's camp shocks the students–as it did, and still does, me. But to a person they want to pitch in as best they can, and afterwards we always have good (and yes, difficult) conversations about how to live responsibly in a world in which we are truly privileged.
We faculty cannot take credit for the quality of young men and women who come to us. But by challenging them to grow intellectually, morally, and even spiritually, we help them negotiate the path many have set for themselves, even if they do not know exactly where that will lead. The joy of our work together is matched only when our students return to us as alumni, further down that path, and still growing in their journey.