First Word

The Gold Standard

L. Jay Lemons

“What have you liked best about Susquehanna?”

It’s a question that students answer with amazing consistency—it’s the people. More specifically, it’s the personal relationships they form with faculty and staff.

Nearly every week, I share a meal with a group of seniors. They must be prepared to share 1) why they came to Susquehanna, 2) what they have liked best, and 3) if they were the president, what would they change about Susquehanna? And what they tell me is the profound difference that the people who work here have made in their lives.

I have always championed the residential liberal arts experience as the gold standard for higher education, because of its outsized impact on students. However, it wasn’t until my two oldest daughters began their college journeys that I had an opportunity to see this through the eyes of a parent.

A Father’s Perspective

In January, I shared my thoughts about the powerful effect that institutions like Susque­hanna have on students in the Huffington Post (http://tinyurl.com/huffpost-lemons). I noted that our oldest daughter attends one of the most well regarded research universities in the world. She is surrounded by incredibly bright peers and has had some exceptional graduate teaching assistants. But, to my knowledge, not a single regular faculty member knows her by name despite her fine academic record.

I contrast that with the experience of our second daughter, who attends Pomona College in Southern California. It is hard to imagine the extraordinary experience she has had happening at any place other than a residential liberal arts college. During her first week on campus, Maggie and her classmates met three times with their academic advisers, all of whom are full-time faculty members. They discussed what classes to take, how to deal with homesickness and the importance of becoming involved in campus life. These interactions, and many more since then, make clear that relationships between faculty members and students are central, essential and expected.

An Abiding Concern

 Susquehanna’s faculty and staff demonstrate this same abiding concern for the welfare and development of students. Faculty members frequently host departmental gatherings at their homes to welcome new majors and many bring them full circle with celebrations when they graduate. The four years between these bookends are filled with mentoring opportunities that often extend well beyond the classroom.

Faculty and staff have been known to drive students to job interviews; make dinner for athletes and international students who must stay on campus during breaks; take them to professional conferences and competitions; work side-by-side with them on research and creative projects; and tap their alumni connections and professional networks to help students obtain internships, job opportunities and graduate school admission.

A veteran who returned to school as an older student with rusty academic skills found encouragement and support from associate professor of history David Imhoof. “Dr. Imhoof ’s willingness to invest time in me, to respect me and to invite me to his home for dinner on Veteran’s Day gave me the confidence and the courage to prove that I am worthy of this opportunity. He is tough, but fair and he really cares.”

When she received the 2010 Alumni Achievement Award, Marie Burns ’92, professor of ophthalmology and vision science at UC Davis, said, “Mom and Dad, what I could not have known was that your commitment to helping me attend Susquehanna would give me more than just a great education, it gave me a lifelong mentor in Professor Peggy Peeler [professor and chair of the Department of Biology].” Marie has paid this gift forward by becoming a mentor herself. Kaitryn Ronning ’15 of Davis, Calif., recounts how Marie reached out to her before she had even decided which college she was going to attend. “It was great to hear from someone on the West Coast who had a lot of success after Susquehanna. “Their relationship eventually led to Kaitryn landing an internship as a lab assistant at the University of California, Davis’ Center for Neuroscience where she spent a summer working with a team of Ph.Ds.

Faculty are clearly at the heart of many of these relationships, but other members of the community make their mark as well. Barb Hicks, of the food service staff, is a daily source of kindness and concern that is as sustaining as any meal the dining room serves. An international student who was having a difficult time adjusting to American life said this about a member of our housekeeping staff. “There is a wonderful sweet cleaning lady in Reed Hall whose name is Cheryl [Rotzler]. Just meeting her has made it worth com­ing to the U.S. and Susquehanna.” Another student said, “It takes special people to clean up after college kids and still wear a smile on their faces. That’s why I have so much respect and admiration for the housekeepers at Susquehanna. Cheryl, in our hall, has gotten to know the students and is truly a shoulder to lean on. Not a day passes when I don’t hear her friendly greeting. As a freshman, just knowing someone cared enough to ask was comforting.”

The Value of the Experience

Our ability to engage students meaningfully starts with having people who care about them. In this respect, Susquehanna is truly blessed. They are our greatest asset. As I concluded in my Huffington Post piece, it is certainly possible to have profound experiences in any educational setting and we know that individual student effort is always key. However, year after year, data from the National Survey of Student Engagement demonstrate that liberal arts colleges engage their students more deeply than any other sector. As an educator and a parent, I can attest that what happens at resi­dential liberal arts colleges is, as the commercial says, “priceless.”

With very best wishes,
L. Jay Lemons, President



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