Tag Archives: college

First Grade for Grown-ups

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I am one of sixty-four students from around the world here in Alexandria, Virginia, at the 2019 NASPA Institute for New Vice Presidents for Student Affairs. Each of us is the most senior student affairs officer on our respective campuses and in our first two years on the job. That so many of us are here is an interesting statement about both higher education and student affairs.

We were told that this is an institute and not a conference to make it clear that we will not pick and choose among class offerings. No, we will all partake of the same intensive cohort experience, including sharing meals together. Tuesday evening is our only break, and as luck would have it, I get to attend Game Four of the NLCS with my buddies, Steve and Rachel (Go Cards!).

I jumped at the opportunity to be here. When I served as Dean of Students at Pepperdine Law, I did my best to attend the national AALS conference each year because I learned a lot, sure, but more importantly, because of the relationships I formed with people who truly understood what I did each day. I still miss my law school student affairs buddies, but that is what excites me about being here today—the opportunity to connect with more amazing people from diverse places who share the common bond of loving students from the same seat as mine.

I love, love, love diversity. It is simultaneously a challenge to navigate and a gift to embrace. But for those like me who are drawn toward diversity instead of resistant to it, it is worth remembering that we also need those who truly “get” us. What I love about national organizations is that it provides the opportunity for both.

There is just one me, and for that we can all be thankful. But there are sixty-three other people here that have a job like mine, and what a comfort it is to know that and to know them.

Away from Home

Freshman Year (Sturgeon)

It has been a long time since I was a college freshman, which my present work constantly reminds me. I barely remember it now and often wonder if that is a gracious gift of aging.

Although I did very well in high school and should have considered many options, I never went on a college visit and simply remember struggling with one question—do I “go away to college” at Harding University, or do I “stay home” to play basketball at Crowley’s Ridge College? I don’t remember the details of why, but I chose the former and traveled the daunting one-hundred miles to study physical education in Searcy, Arkansas.

It was a good year overall. Harding reminded me of my high school in many ways, which was positive. I knew several students already there and roomed with Christopher, a friend from high school and a track star.

When I try to remember those long ago days, an odd collection of scenes comes to mind: An unsuccessful attempt to walk on the basketball team. The terror of speech class. Daily chapel. Pledging a social club. Navigating a laundry room. Unlimited food in the cafeteria. New friends.

Although it was a fine year, it was only a year, and I transferred to the University of Arkansas for the rest of my undergraduate education. At this point of life my solitary year in Searcy seems like a blip on the radar screen, almost causing me to question if it even happened.

Today, I am back in Searcy for the first time in close to thirty years for a student affairs conference, and I am reminded that it did. In fact, that year and that place represents an extremely formative moment in my life—my first experience in actually being “away from home.”

I have subsequently lived in multiple zip codes and discovered quite a bit about the world and about myself. That all began with a mysterious decision to go away to college. That decision is not for everyone, but all in all, it was right for me.

Here. We. Go.

IMG_0802In a sense, it all begins today. Clown cars with sentimental parents, excited new students, and implausible piles of possessions arrive on campus in parade this morning for “move-in” day, unleashing a week-long whirlwind of orientation activities that includes ten speaking opportunities for yours truly. There is no option but to jump in and hang on.

It dawned on me recently that although we moved to Nashville five months ago, everything that has occurred to this point—and there has been a lot—won’t register in retrospect since we in higher education count in academic year. Years from now, I will look back on my time at Lipscomb University and recall it beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year.

In a sense, as I said, it all begins today.

My wife and I are settled in a new home, a new neighborhood, and a new church. Our daughters are settling into their new lives in California and Texas, respectively. I am in a new office and the entire office suite received a much-needed facelift this summer, and there are many new faces on a new team in a new organizational structure. Not everything is as settled as I prefer, but it is remarkable how many things have the new car smell in a matter of months.

Today, we truly begin.

Last week I attended a “send-off party” in Murfreesboro, a sweet event that gathered incoming Lipscomb students from Rutherford County along with parents, friends, alumni, and staff to “send off” these young people on their college journey. At the end, we gathered around them and prayed for what is to come, and if they are anything like me, they do not have a clue.

But I hope they sensed the excitement of something unknown but good that is about to begin. That is what I sense today.

All Good Things

As I rise each morning and retire at night, an unread book sits peacefully on the nightstand, white letters on a bright blue screaming its title in all caps: NECESSARY ENDINGS. My new friend Matt shared it with me, and I only have a general idea of what it has to teach me, but it sure seems appropriate.

This has been quite a year for the ol’ family. Our cross-country move required saying goodbye to a special time in our lives. And then a few weeks ago our oldest daughter received her hard-earned credential to launch a new career teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing children—and that required saying goodbye to a community that loved and supported her, too. And a few days from now, our youngest daughter will hit the road toward San Antonio for a new adventure following her recent graduation from an incredible college experience in Seattle. In reverse chronological order, from oldest to youngest, each of our transitions necessarily involved an ending.

My wife and I smoothly shifted gears into Empty Nest four years ago, but I’m not sure what you call this new place where our children are full-fledged adults, out of college, not really children anymore. It struck me sitting among the masses at the Washington State Convention Center this past weekend that although these two remarkable young women we have tried so hard not to screw up still need us in certain ways, in certain other and very important ways, they do not. They are good, strong, capable human beings. In one specific way—raising self-sufficient humans—our work has ended, and necessarily so.

I confess a twinge of sadness as I sat there in that cavernous convention center and thought of such things, but there were other emotions in this mixed-up heart of mine. There was happiness. Relief. And pride. Oh yes, pride. A deep, full, exploding pride for those two amazing people—our sweet Erica and Hillary.

I hear that all good things must come to an end. It turns out that I’m okay with that after all. It is like that satisfying last page of a long, delicious novel, followed by slowly closing the book and sitting there in that pleasant pause full of reflection and relief—before the anticipation of what comes next.

An IDEAL Evening

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The IDEAL Chef Winning Team Celebrates on Stage!

The IDEAL program is easily one of the most delightful discoveries we have made in our brief time at Lipscomb University. IDEAL stands for Igniting the Dream of Education and Access at Lipscomb, which as the website describes, is a program “uniquely designed for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities” who want to receive the full college experience—classes, cafeteria, residence halls, events—alongside traditional students. We noticed this right away when we arrived on campus, and it was love at first sight.

I recently met with Misty and Andrea who lead the charge and, having been properly smitten with their good work, made it clear that I wanted to be invited to anything going on. You don’t have to ask them twice, so last Friday evening my wife and I happily attended the IDEAL Summer Academy Showcase and Dinner. The Summer Academy is a week-long residential summer camp experience for prospective IDEAL students, and the Friday night event was a dinner competition (prepared by the campers) and a show (prepared and performed by the campers). My goodness, it was awesome.

When we left, we both noticed that we had headaches from smiling so much. True story. It was an evening of indescribable joy.

Stanley Hauerwas is a provocative theologian who has written on a wide range of topics, including medical ethics, and I remember his essay on suffering in which he turned a spotlight on those with developmental disabilities and argued that such people threaten the rest of us “because they expose our own fear of weakness and dependence on others.”  He wrote, “[T]hey do not try to hide their needs. They are not self-sufficient, they are not self-possessed, they are in need. Even more, they do not evidence the proper shame for being so. They simply assume that they are what they are and they need to provide no justification for being such. It is almost as if they have been given a natural grace to be free from the regret most of us feel for our neediness.”

Perhaps that glimpse of liberation is why we smiled so much that it hurt last Friday evening. It appears to be an IDEAL way to live.

In the Spotlight

Bright Lights

“All the world’s a stage…” – Jacques in As You Like It, by William Shakespeare

As I prepared last Friday night to enjoy my first experience with Singarama, a wildly popular campus tradition that showcases large numbers of ultra-gifted Lipscomb University students, I was mesmerized by the stage lights illuminating the auditorium in celestial royal blue. We in the audience instinctively knew that the lights were simply teasing us. Before long, they would disappear completely, only to explode again and dazzle us with the glittering magic of brightly-costumed performers singing and dancing and delivering a delightful evening of entertainment.

It is a different experience for those on stage. Blinded by the light, they must remain focused in ironic, light-flooded darkness, remembering the steps, remembering the lyrics, remembering to smile. It is a rush of a different kind, one that arrives by hard work, nerves, adrenaline, and execution. In the end we are all happy, but none more so than those who stepped up and delivered in the spotlight.

I also considered this earlier in the week sitting in the famed Madison Square Garden, the self-described most famous arena in the world, watching another set of college students put on a show in front of a crowd under the bright lights. This time it was athletic talent and a live national television audience, but it necessarily involved the same light-flooded darkness, the same adrenaline, and the same task to focus on what had been practiced over and over.

It was a pleasure on both occasions to watch students stand and deliver under the bright lights.

Some seem to crave the spotlight, while others avoid it. There are reasons to be wary of the spotlight, but others to embrace it. It is simultaneously compelling and terrifying. And some who crave the spotlight never receive it, and others who avoid it who find it thrust upon them.

It isn’t a bad metaphor for life, as might have occurred to Shakespeare.

So how does one respond to an impending moment on life’s stage under the bright lights? Discipline. Preparation. Courage. Persistence. Hard work. Good habits. Resilience. Endurance.

And maybe most important of all, an active imagination that envisions in faith that glorious and transcendent moment when you have done your part and the curtain falls or the buzzer sounds—in the spotlight.

Student Life

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The plan worked. Starting the new job on spring break week was the right call. New house, new office, new computer, new work phone, new cell phone, new business cards, new driver’s license—even a new car with new a Tennessee license plate—all taken care of last week. But today is the day that I targeted all along: The first day on the job—with students.

I am a university vice president whose area of responsibility is listed as “student life.” I love those two words so much — independently, but especially, together. For those unfamiliar with the lingo of higher education, student life, also called student affairs or student development, refers to the large number of student experiences outside of the formal academic setting. From dorm room to intramural field, from student organization to fraternity/sorority, from career counseling to intercultural experience, from campus ministry to veterans’ services, from student government to campus safety, from disciplinary action to behavioral intervention—all this and more is our world. Student “life.”

We are educators. At times we stand in front of a group of students in some formal way (for instance, I speak to approximately 1400 students in Allen Arena tomorrow!), but our teaching posture is far more often one-on-one, or small group, or even side by side. And the lessons we teach are often the kind that, to risk sounding overly dramatic, the world needs and that you never forget. “Life” lessons.

I am raring to go this morning, and I hope you can catch a glimpse of how I can be so energized about this new work so quickly after leaving such an amazing community two thousand miles away. To put it simply, there are over four thousand students here, and I get to lead a fantastic team doing important work in an exciting place at a crucial time in history. That is why I am ready to go.

Jesus once said about his intent for humanity: “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” (John 10:10, MSG)

Today, on my first day here with students, I aim for that, too. Student “life”—that authentic, permanent, full, and better life that defies imagination.

Final(s) Approach

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My office sits in the middle of Seaver College where a few thousand students will take final exams this week. Just up the hill in the world I inhabited for the past nine years are hundreds of law students sitting for final exams this week, too. Meanwhile, my youngest daughter is facing final exams in her study abroad experience six thousand miles away.

But I’m happy as can be. Been there, done that, as cool people used to say (and obviously I still do).

Well, there is the tiniest bit of guilt at the lack of cumulative examinations in my own life. No, my bad, I think that was just a little indigestion. I’m good now.

It has been interesting to compare the way the bulk of undergraduate students and law students cope with the stresses of finals season. One set apparently prefers letting stress go through singing loudly and/or funny Internet videos while the other likes to curl up in a fetal position and cry. I’ll let you guess which is which.

My job is and has been to offer kind smiles in the general direction of the test-takers wherever they happen to be.  It is good work that seems to be appreciated.

I guess this reflects life in general. Sometimes you face testing. Sometimes you are off the hook. When the latter applies, encourage the former. It has been my experience that you will appreciate it when it is your turn to be tested.

Off & Running

Running Forest FallsIt is a big day. My office sits in the heart of Pepperdine University’s main campus in Malibu, and today is the first day of classes for undergraduate students. Next door to my office is Pepperdine’s high-tech, newly-renovated Payson Library complete with a full-functioning Starbucks, and you can feel the highly-caffeinated energy in the air.

My youngest daughter attends a different university that runs on a different calendar, but because she is studying abroad in Spain this semester and her plane is scheduled to touch down right about now it feels like the first day for her, too. It simply feels like a big day at every turn in my world.

Last week had a different feel. I was honored to be invited to attend a retreat high in the San Bernardino Mountains with fifty or sixty rising Pepperdine sophomores as they prepared for a brand new year. It was such a tranquil setting. The view by day featured a beautiful lake and stunning views of the surrounding mountains, and the night featured actual bear sightings and a sky so full of stars that I had to remind myself that it was real.

But I decided to go for a run one afternoon because that is the sort of thing I do, and though stunning, I wouldn’t snag the word “tranquil” to describe it. For one, we were a mile above sea level, and let’s just say that my lungs noticed. For two, although the temperature was nowhere near extreme, maybe it seemed so hot because we were that much closer to the sun. And for three, there was nothing flat in sight. It surely wasn’t my easiest rave run.

We went on this retreat to get away and find focus for the year to come. Peace and tranquility are good for such things, but on reflection I think that difficult run was pretty good preparation, too. In fact, my major take-away on the retreat was that I need to remember how to choose to do without. And that run surely reminded me what it felt like to do without, oh, let’s say, air.

So here we go. The year ahead looks full and awesome and slightly terrifying, but good. I’m ready for it. Let’s run this race.

Seek Wisdom

18888351_719161668263349_4688144046978236416_n(1)“Knowledge is flour, but wisdom is bread.” – Austin O’Malley

Today, I will drive to LAX to pick up our youngest daughter who is returning from her sophomore year of college. Next week, our oldest daughter begins a graduate specialty program for working with deaf and hearing-impaired students. And when you add that my wife and I live and work on a university campus, it seems safe to say that education is an important part of our lives. And that we are familiar with student loans.

Everyone seems to agree that education is important. There are significant disagreements on how to go about it, of course, but it is rare to hear anyone say that education is unimportant. Stay in school. Hit the books. Do your homework. Go to college. Study hard. All cliches by now, but all motivated by the idea that education is uber-valuable.

Why? Why is education so important? As a recent education professional, I spent some time with that simple yet complex question. Is it knowledge acquisition? Is it to prepare students for the working world and increase their earning potential, or more broadly, become contributing members of society?

I arrived at a working answer. In my view, the purpose of education is so that students may acquire wisdom. In other words, in its highest form, education goes beyond the impartation of knowledge and allows students to use the knowledge and skills they acquire for good purposes in this world. It teaches discernment.

The entire project may best be described by Gene Kesselman, a WW2 vet from New Jersey in his mid-nineties, who told a local magazine writer last year, “You know the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Knowledge is knowing tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing you don’t put tomato in a fruit salad.”

Exactly.