Mission Matters #45 – The student experience: Then & now

by Michael G. Cartwright
Vice President for University Mission

Move-In Day at the University of Indianapolis took place only a week or so ago. Before it quickly recedes in the rearview mirror of the student experience, let me invite you to pause to think with me about what is already unfolding. Only a few hours after the last boxes were carried into the rooms of new students, Vice President Kory Vitangeli welcomed almost 1,200 new students and President Manuel charged them to embrace the opportunities that lay ahead. And so all of the personal dramas of transformation that stretch from then to now into the future are underway with endings not yet seen.

By its very nature, education is future oriented, and yet the story of student experience is typically told in retrospect. And even then, the story can often change as layers of experience offer the opportunity to reconsider what transpired during the four-or-five-year period of the traditional college experience. But amid such differences, there are common beginning points – like the day students move in – and there are “family resemblances” between generations of student experience. Indeed, it is not too much to say that we can talk about traditions of student experience here and elsewhere.

This year, I have decided that the focus of Mission Matters articles will be “the student experience then & now.” Recently I discovered the existence of a couple of first-person accounts of the student experience from the earliest periods of our institutional history. As readers might expect, the primary focus of such accounts is about the traditional undergraduate experience – but this will not be exclusively the case. Indeed, one of the interesting features of the stories of student experience is the way that the education of UIndy alumni is often extended beyond the traditional residential college paradigm either because of professional degree programs or work-place opportunities or both.

Beginning with the generation of the founders and continuing up to the present, I will describe different patterns of student experience in the context of institutional mission and purpose. Some of these patterns display continuity with previous generations. Others bear striking contrasts.

In each case, I will do three things. First, I will describe the most salient features of the student experience during that period of our history – where possible using first-person accounts of student life. Second, I will offer a précis of the life-work of the student-alumnus across the span of his or her lifetime. Finally, each piece will conclude with a succinct summary statement about the mission of the university or college in the particular era of this student’s experience and his or her relationship to that understanding of the purpose of higher education on this campus and beyond.

The seven-piece series on the student experience at Indiana Central and the University of Indianapolis begins with a piece that I have written for Homecoming 2018. Irby J. Good was a student from 1905 to 1908. He was also one of the first two graduates, in June 1908. Shortly thereafter, Good began a lifetime of service as instructor, business, manager, and president that would not conclude until 1944. During a year when we rededicate the original “college building” – named after President Good since 1970 – I think it is appropriate that we begin with the person who, more than anyone else of his generation, bore the aspirations of the founders of Indiana Central University.

I believe that there is much to be learned from the experiences of previous generations even as we engage the challenges of new paradigms of student experience that will be featured in UIndy’s future. But what we learn for future purposes will be enhanced if we keep in mind what we know about the present shape of the student experience. That is the point of relevant comparison and contrast that we need to keep in view as we learn from the life experiences of Catheryn Kurtz Lausch ’35 (whose major focus was music) and Robert Frey ’60 (who became an historian) among others. There is no one kind of relationship between “then” & “now.” That is no less true for us as faculty and staff employees than it is for our students.

All the more reason that we remind ourselves about what begins to happen on Move-In Day is to begin orienting students to the narrative framework of institutional expectations. The moment in which a student enrolls or “matriculates” is the time when that tradition-laden script is laid before students. (One such 15th century accounts of student life is called The Manuale Scholarium.) Students bring their own interests, dispositions, and notions to such storylines. Indeed, part of the story includes the ways that students adapt, resist, and transform the narratives, but make no mistake, there is a narrative frame to the student experience.

Consider for a moment how UIndy’s President addressed the students in the fall of 2013. First, Rob Manuel led the 950 students in a brief reflective exercise designed to help them register the significance of being part of the “one percent of the world’s population that are able to earn a higher education degree from an institution in the United States, with all the luxury and opportunity that entails,” Then, Rob Manuel encouraged the students not to take their education for granted: “be mindful of those who are less fortunate than we are and do all we can do to improve their lot in life. Another lesson is that we cannot squander such opportunity when it comes our way. I urge you to reach your potential; we believe in you.” The president did not stop there; he offered them a pair of symbols to use in their journey toward commencement four years from that point.

“I believe it’s fitting that you have a symbol of the goal you are working toward, a tangible reminder that one day [in May 2017] you will receive your University of Indianapolis diploma. The card with the stickers includes the lyrics of our Alma Mater, which you’ll hear during the recessional, as well as a tassel similar to the one that you will wear with your cap and gown at your graduation. I encourage you to pin that tassel to your bulletin board, tape it to your monitor, hang it from your rear view mirror. Put it wherever it will serve as a constant inspiration and reminder of your goal.”

Finally, President Manuel invited the students to experience a foretaste of the future, to receive the greetings of the faculty and staff who will cheer them on now, as well as on that future day when they participate in commencement.

“As you leave here today, you’ll be greeted by applause from faculty, staff, and administrators from across the University. They have gathered to welcome you and encourage you. Consider it a sneak preview, because on the day of your graduation, you will experience a faculty rite that’s very similar as they usher you out into the world….”

President Manuel used a version of those words this past week to welcome members of the class of 2022. Opening Convocation is a contemporary tradition that we experience with a sense of confidence and pride. The words that Rob spoke as our presiding leader are simple ones that link the present to the then that is the past and the then-that-is-yet-to-be.

We would be wrong to ignore the differences in the script that we use today to initiate traditional age undergraduates at the beginning of their student experience and the scripts used in the past. And I would argue that we are also mistaken if we choose to look past the similarities in the scripts of then & now. In future years, we will learn what such ritual moments have meant for the student experience of alumni in the second decade of the 21st century. In the meantime, we enjoy the wonder of new beginnings on “Move-In Day.”

As always, I invite your feedback at missionmatters@uindy.edu. In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to reflect with me.  Remember:  UIndy’s mission matters!