The great migration

Students on an Alternative Spring Break form JMU (photo by Mary Slade)

Some are counting socks. Some are buying plastic bins. Some are making  rounds to see friends and relatives before they leave. Shortly, they’ll pack minivans, sedans and trucks to head north, south, east and west toward Harrisonburg.

The freshmen are coming.

Next week, roughly 4,000 students, along with their parents, will descend on Harrisonburg. The traffic will swell, the restaurateurs will open their doors eagerly, and the excitement will reach a fever pitch as the great annual move-in begins. Residence Halls and advisers are ready. The FROGS are poised. The dining hall pantries are stocked, and the new and improved Bridgeforth Stadium looms over campus heralding the coming of the year’s first football game.

The great migration that will take place here and all over the country is a rite of passage. Only going to kindergarten for the first time holds the kind of expectations for students that going off to college does. It is the beginning of a great adventure for students, one that will change their lives.

Some JMU freshmen will move into a renovated Wayland Hall as part of a learning community centered on performing arts. Others will join athletics teams for practice. Some will walk the campus reveling in the friendliness for which JMU is known. They have come to learn and they will leave transformed.

Albert Einstein said: “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that, he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

That is the challenge for the members of JMU’s faculty — and one they are well-equipped to surmount. The incoming freshman don’t yet know how fortunate they are or what a wise choice they have made to have chosen a school where the art of teaching is highly valued and supported.

For as long as Madison has existed, teaching has been paramount— not secondary to research or publication as it is in many institutions. And with a faculty student ratio of 15 to one, incoming freshman have the chance to do more than learn en masse. Instead, they have the opportunity — the very real and tangible opportunity — to experience what has long been considered the gold standard of Socratic education: engaging closely with educators and peers to discover new thoughts, new ideas. To mine the gold that cannot be squashed into a textbook or corralled in a PowerPoint.

JMU’s faculty is brimming with educators who want nothing more than to break the bonds of the classroom to help students think critically and creatively. One of those is Scott Stevens, professor of Computer Information Systems and Management Science in the College of Business.  He is one of an elite group of collegiate professors whose courses are available through The Teaching Company, which vets the top one percent of the nation’s professors and selects only one out of every 5,000 professors they consider. Last week, I learned that Scott’s class on game theory is one of the company’s top selling courses. No surprise there. In an interview I did with him a year or so ago, he could not say enough about his love of teaching. If he won the lottery tomorrow, he said, he would still teach.

Yesterday some colleagues and I toured the classrooms, labs and work spaces used by the engineering students on campus. Serendipitously, we ran into Jon Spindel, professor and associate dean of the College of Integrated Science and Technology, who gave us an impromptu tour of the expanded design spaces for engineering and ISAT students. Jon’s enthusiasm was evident — and contagious.

Scott and Jon are not alone. JMU is brimming with educators of a similar mindset. They are eager to challenge, teach, encourage — and perhaps most importantly — to engage students.

After four years, the current freshman class, the Class of 2015, will graduate transformed by their engagement with professors and peers. Their perspectives and perceptions about life and the world will have been reshaped – like the students who have worked during Alternative Spring Breaks in Welch, W.Va., under the engaged direction of College of Education Professor Mary Slade. They see the needs of the world from a new angle.

Out of this new-found and earned understanding that is so carefully nurtured by an academy devoted to teaching, students will find ways to make a difference. Next week is just the beginning. The changes freshmen embrace, the adjustments they will make over the next few months, and the growth and learning they’ll acquire over the next four years will — without a doubt — change the world.

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About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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