John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

A New Beginning

There are so many reasons that I am so glad I am an academic. And one that is very high on my list is that I constantly get the opportunity to have new beginnings. What prompts this observation and reflection is that tomorrow, July 29, I will experience another new beginning. This time it is not exactly like those I experienced every time I began a new school year at the University of South Carolina. But it is a new beginning for a new year with new kinds of “students.”
I refer to the fact that I am privileged to be engaged in the capstone work of my four decades long career in a new beginning each year whereby I get to work with a new cohort of four-and two year colleges who send teams to what we call “Launch Meetings”. These are held in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, which has become most recently a site for presidential vacations (as in the Obamas).
These institutional teams convene to commence an approximate year long process of rigorously evaluating their institution’s entire approach to the beginning college experience, either for the conventional meaning of “new” students, and/or for transfer students. The goal of this rigorous evaluation process, a form of “assessment”, is to come up with an action plan to improve new student learning and retention. And then the most important part of this process is to actually implement the plan. We have learned that when colleges finally develop what they never had before—a plan—and then they implement it, well, very significant retention gains follow.
So to kick off this process I work with my colleagues to start another academic year for us by “teaching” these new “students,” who are really fully credentialed academics, how to do this kind of assessment. I have been doing this “launching” process now since 2003 and find it to be the most exciting work I have done in higher education. This overall process is known as “Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year” and/or “Foundations of Excellence Transfer Focus” and will now have involved just over 200 institutions.
This week we do a two-day “Launch Meeting” for 12 four-year institutions, and then next Monday and Tuesday we repeat this process for 22 two-year colleges. And the cycle renews, so they can experience the challenges, benefits, and joys of institutional renewal, even in hard times.
Even when I was a college student myself, I came to realize that the academic lifestyle gave me the marvelous opportunity for “a new beginning” each year. After my first year of college, I especially needed one! Everyone, every institution needs new beginnings, renewal, a clean slate, that rare tabula rasa. I tell our institutions now, just what I have always told my students: what you do going forward matters much more than what you did or didn’t do in the past.”
Back in the 1980’s my colleague at USC, Jerry Jewler, and I wrote for our first-year students about this concept of “a new beginning” in a text for them entitled “College is Only the Beginning.” And therein we quoted from a Washington Post piece written by a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, Charlotte J. Patterson, entitled “With Fall, a Fresh Start.” I was moved when I first read her thoughts on a new beginning and I share them with you now to put this piece of mine in some kind of closing perspective:
“And that is why I like this day. For all its obvious, outward specialness, it is really no different from any other day. We are always ending something, and we are always beginning something else; we are always cherishing hopes and hiding fears, always searching for a new life and a new birth. Freshman arrival is a reminder that we are always, as Gertrude Stein once put it, “beginning again and again”—that insofar as we are fully human, every day is always fresh. Freshman arrival changes everything, and it changes nothing; it makes us stop to look at what was always there for us to see.”
And as I look forward to my new “launch,” I realize that for these campuses with which we will be working we will be asking them to do exactly that: stopping to look at what was always there for us to see.
John N Gardner

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