John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

John N. Gardner

During a previous International Conference on the First Year Experience I heard a presentation by an academic administrator from an experimental college, designated as “Arctic College”, that the Canadian federal government had established for its Inuit people in the Northwest Territories – that vast region of tundra that is larger than the United States.

In their sincere desire to bring higher education to this highly isolated population the government built a new campus below the tundra and when it opened the campus it flew its first class in from all over the North West Territory. This meant that the students were being put into a totally new physical environment. Just one problem with this: there were trees. These students weren’t used to trees. Instead they were accustomed to being able to see as far as their vision permitted, in the daytime, across the vast expanse of very flat tundra. And soon after they arrived in this new setting, hundreds of miles from their ancestral homes, they developed many debilitating physical symptoms: sweating, dizziness, headaches, fainting, insomnia, appetite loss, tremulousness, and they couldn’t stand this for very long. So they left in droves. Talk about an attrition problem! What an understatement.

It occurred to me that if I had travelled to Arctic College I would have observed the trees through my American acculturated eyes. And the trees would not have made me sick as it had the Inuit people. I would not have been able to see the trees the way the students did; and hence as an educator trying to help first-year students, I would not have been able to see the forest for the trees.

I have come to understand years later that the Canadian government has rethought its approaches to bringing higher education to the people of the Arctic region and now operates much more in the mode of bringing classes to where people are instead of forcing an unnatural migration. So what I learned from this exchange was that to help students, educators have to be able to see the forest and the trees through the students’ eyes, not just theirs.

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