In last month’s newsletter piece, I shared that I was about to embark on visits to nine residential, liberal arts colleges in a two-week period with my family, including my daughter who is a high school senior. Thankfully, after putting about 3,000 miles on the car, we survived our marathon trip. Along the way, we had the opportunity to take in the beauty of the countryside, explore some craft breweries, reconnect with old friends and, of course, visit college campuses.
Of those we visited, the population of the communities in which the schools are located ranged from less than the student population to a city of about 325,000. Since Luther is in a small city, my particular attention focused on those campuses that share similar settings. Our daughter prefers to be in a smaller city for college and she realized while we visited three in larger cities that they were not the best fits for her interests.
For someone who enjoys runs on the Trout Run Trail, reading in the Prairie, and the overall walkability of Decorah, trading in these surroundings for a city is a tall task for our daughter. I trust this is part of what draws our students to Luther. Interestingly, at this point in time her current first choice was a college we visited last summer and is located in a city of almost 500,000. However, it has views of Pikes Peak and access to wilderness close by so that more than compensates for the fact that it is in a large city.
Beyond where the colleges were located, both my wife and I observed how the student experience was framed by the colleges we visited. At most visits, an admissions professional led an information session where they guided the gathered families through the academic program, the career and personal development opportunities, the co-curricular experience, and the admission process and financial aid. In some instances they were joined by a panel of students.
As insiders with over 50 years of collective higher education experience, we listened attentively and asked well-informed questions although we were careful to not overdo it. Naturally, we also had the opportunity to meet students, usually via a campus tour. What struck me beyond what ultimately becomes the sameness of the visit experience, was the two campuses where the students we met talked about how their college encourages them to take care of themselves, get adequate sleep, and overall be well. This made me curious, how did they do this? And, are they truly successful?
College campuses are bastions for students being engaged in all sorts of things and usually at full force all the time. Discerning balance can be extremely challenging even for the most disciplined students. But the way they talked about not feeling overwhelmed by busyness was a refreshing analysis. The students distinguished between stress, which is real and common, versus distress – a byproduct of unfocused overcommitments – which is debilitating. They talked about how they were encouraged by their faculty, staff, and peers to take care of themselves while engaging deeply in the experience. At one campus, the admissions professional spoke of the importance of high school students having 2-3 deep extra-curricular experiences as part of their portfolio. This is different, qualitatively, from the laundry list of activities in which students partake (and often believe they must have for college admission).
It takes much effort to cultivate a culture that focuses on well-being and I am looking forward to the important work that is part of our new strategic plan that focuses on well-being. There is much work to do and I am confident we have an opportunity to transform the culture at Luther to become one that is reasonably balanced with challenging academics and engaging co-curricular experiences while at the same time having well-being at the center of all that we do.