I had the most delightful weekend. It started with playing music with friends and ended with attending a talk by Dr. Eli Noam titled, The Future of Video Media and the Metaverse. In the center was a truly outstanding production of Allegro, in our School of Visual and Performing Arts (if you’re nearby, go), a fun event in our art gallery which brought in lots of regional artists, and a special accepted students event for students from our local high schools. As I bask in the glow of a weekend well spent, I am struck by the through line of all of this: it is hope.
We talk a lot about the purposes of higher education. It is a path to enlightenment and lifelong learning. It is an on ramp for careers. It is an essential equity strategy for the nation. It is a place for young people to transition from late adolescence to adulthood. It is the place where we pursue questions to help us understand our contexts, illuminate and solve social or technical problems, experiment with form and genre, and, when we’re really lucky, simply play with ideas. All of these things matter. All of them are the essence of higher education.
But, as I moved through this wonderfully rich weekend, I came to understand that what we are doing when we engage in these questions, creations, and ideas, is allowing ourselves to have hope. Indeed, higher education, all education really, is the purest expression of hope that there is. How wonderful.
In a world where the news about higher education is filled with crises both financial and political, it is hard to move from the difficult details of managing our work, to the bigger picture question of our purposes. As provost, I am charged with continuously reflecting on the outcomes of the educational experience, focusing on equity, quality, and the impact of the opportunities we hope our students seize. Faculty are focused on trying to engage students in the topics they hold dear, reflecting on their teaching and puzzling over how to inspire their classes to go ahead and struggle with the material at hand. Those working in the areas of academic support (tutoring, advising, mentoring, financial aid, and the registrar) are paying attention to those processes that are helping and those that are blocking our students from succeeding in their college experiences. Our library keeps pivoting, trying to connect our students to the campus, so do our Centers for Student Involvement, Career Success, the Office of InterCultural Affairs, and Athletics. Our efforts are continuous as we reach out, trying to draw our students in.
All of this matters. All of it is necessary. We must constantly examine results and work to get better. We must be reflective educators, looking for new opportunities to make all students feel welcome, supported, and able to succeed. I think we do this by nature, even if sometimes our efforts are dispersed or not fully seen by our colleagues. But as I think about the notion of hope as the heart of what we do, I wonder if we need to make a little more room to acknowledge the things we are all hoping for when we cross that threshold to the university.
Applying to college is scary, exciting, financially daunting, and fraught with uncertainty. For our traditional aged students, it is a step encouraged by guidance counselors, parents, and peers. It is the stuff of movies and television programs, offering an option for what to do after high school. Students may take this step because it is expected or because they don’t know what else to do, but when they do, they are hoping for something wonderful to happen.
Returning to college after a gap, whether because one’s first try didn’t go well or because a person wanted or needed to do something else first, is also daunting. Adult learners worry about the money, to be sure, but they are more worried about whether they remember how to be students, whether they will be able to keep up, and even whether or not they will find a way to fit into a space that is largely designed for those coming straight out of high school. But they are also filled with hope. They are taking this step because they are hoping for something more – a new opportunity, a new sense of self, a new view of the world.
Those of us who have chosen careers in higher education are brimming with hope. We hope to keep learning and to help others share our joy in the ideas we hold dear. We hope that our own efforts will make a difference in the world – whether as scholars or as teachers and mentors. We hope that somehow, we will move forward challenging conversations, impossible research questions, and inspire ourselves and our students to imagine and pursue new acts of creativity in all of its forms. In the face of the myriad challenges and sometimes disheartening evidence that our efforts may have failed, we bravely and optimistically start each term, and often each day, with a sense of hope and wonder.
We are a lucky group. Our lives are shaped by a deep faith in the possibilities that education creates. We are charged with guiding others as they uncover their hopes and dreams and open their eyes to possibilities. Sometimes we see the results of our efforts plainly, in the performances, projects, and culminating experiences that mark the ends of things. We also see them in small wins everywhere — like when a student finally grasps a concept they’ve struggled with, or when one who is pondering leaving connects with their advisor and decides to stay. Through each of these steps our students are transformed and so are we. Their questions, triumphs, and challenges bring new understandings of the world; they bring new understandings of ourselves. I cannot imagine anything more wonderful.
Education are the deepest expression of hope a culture can muster. It signals a firm belief that things can get better, that problems can be solved, that ideas are meaningful things, and that we all have the capacity to grow. It is a place of constant reinvention and discovery, and a path to discontentment and contentment all at once. What an exciting and optimistic journey! I hope you can feel it, too.