John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Would Your College/University Have to Do…to Have This Effect?

Recently, on a professional trip, I found myself in a small city, Parkersburg, West Virginia, which is on the banks of the beautiful Ohio River. I was there visiting a unique institution, West Virginia University Parkersburg. After a very early dinner meeting I found myself more or less “free” for the evening and I realized I was being subjected to a powerful emotionally magnetized force pulling me up the River, literally. For, you see, Parkersburg is just 12 miles down the river from Marietta, Ohio, where, once I got past the disaster of my first term of college, I spent an idlyllic (or at least that’s the way I remember it) 3.5 more years in undergraduate school—at Marietta College. I just couldn’t be that close and not take a quick run up the road and have a look.

I reflect on this often, namely, the enormous draw, the power of the pull, back to alma mater, the beyond rational reverence I have for whatever alma mater stands for. What happened to me there? What did that place do for me? Of course, I know full well.  There is no doubt in my mind about the impact of my college experience.

And this is why I am drawn, back again and again and again. For twelve years I went three times a year as a trustee.  And then I realized that I had spent three times the length of my undergraduate education and donated far more in money than my original education had cost. It was time to move on. I often regret that as mentally I haven’t moved on.

So what’s the draw? This is the place where the person I came to be as an adult, came to be.

This is where I learned, developed my core set of values, particularly those about my country, politics, religion.

This is where I tested my character.

This is where I discovered what I could learn, do and who I am.

This is where I was born.

This is where I was at peace.

This is where I made the most important intellectual discoveries of my life.

This is where I became intellectually liberated.

This is where I unlearned my domestically acquired prejudices.

This is where I acquired some life long powerful friendships—as in with one friend that I still converse with weekly even though he lives 600 miles away from me.

This is where I prepared for my eventual profession: that of higher education change agent.

This is where I discovered the mind body connection and why I still run two miles a day.

This is where I acquired a number of my adult behaviors like reading The New York Times, every day, 365 days a year.

This is where I did not join a fraternity even though my father really wanted me to do so.

This is where I gave up being a varsity athlete to be a serious student but I still quote my crew coach almost every day (positively and affectionately).

This is where I did not touch a drop of alcohol for fear of becoming like my alcoholic mother.

This is where I developed such a love for life in the academy that I have never wanted to leave it.

This is where I separated from my parents and shaped my own identity.

I have so much to be thankful to the College for.

This is why for me even 47 years later, the place is like a shrine to me. It is my Mecca. I must return periodically for some kind of restoration, reminder, regrounding, offering of homage. I don’t know. It is just a magnet. I cannot resist.

So what do you have to do to have your college/university have this same kind of effect on your students?

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