Dean of Faculty Ken Peterson convocation address
Dean of Faculty Ken Peterson
September 7, 2017
President Davis, thanks for your message and for giving me the opportunity to speak to our students this morning—especially our first-year students. We are grateful that you’ve chosen to spend your undergraduate years with us, and we want them to be as fulfilling and successful as they can be. College can be exciting, fulfilling, and rewarding, but it can also be stressful, confusing, and lonely. I’d like you to consider several habits and choices that I think can make your time at Furman more rewarding.
First . . .
- Connect bravely
If you are a new student, or even if you are not, you might find that the number and strength of your social attachments—for example, the number of people whom you consider friends—is lower than what you’ve left behind. Frank Bruni pointed out in a recent New York Times article titled “The Real College Scourge” that loneliness in college is pervasive (and thus normal in the beginning). The good news is that time will probably ease this pain, and the better news is that you can accelerate the process by meeting people—lots and lots of people.
Of course, meeting someone does not guarantee that a good relationship will form, but the more people you meet, and the more people you have shared experiences with, the greater the chances that you will develop a circle of friends with compatible personalities and shared interests. For most of us, meeting people whom we don’t know, takes courage. It might mean that you have to summon your 20 seconds of courage to insert yourself in a hallway conversation among people you don’t know, sit by someone in the dining hall whom you haven’t met, as a student in your discussion group to lunch, or join a campus organization whose members are unfamiliar to you. Not sure what organizations are out there? Contact Neil Jamerson in our Office of Student Life, and if you haven’t found your people yet, keep looking—they’re out there. Reach out, be brave, and don’t give up! The skills that you are developing as you reconstruct a social life here at Furman will help you when you switch jobs, cities, or countries later in life.
Connect with your advisor, your professors, your FRAD, and your RA. Along with The Furman Advantage comes heightened expectations for advising relationships. But advising relationships, like others, are such that you get out of them what you put into them. When you have a problem or question, don’t hesitate to contact your advisor. When your advisor reaches out for information or to invites you in for an appointment, respond quickly and affirmatively. And if, after a period of trying to connect with your advisor, the relationship isn’t working very well, see Dr. Horhota to request a different advisor. There is no magic way to match advisors to advisees, and switching when it’s clear to you that the relationship is not working will enhance your Furman experience.
Some of your most enduring relationships at Furman are likely to be with your professors. At a small college like Furman, we expect you to ask us questions, discuss paper or project ideas with us, and share your plans for learning experiences like study away, internships, research, and community engaged learning or your emerging career ideas when you come to our office hours. But for that to happen, you have to actually come to our offices. Please know that the students who came before you who got the most out of their Furman experience used office hours liberally, often to the delight of their professors.
Summon your 20 seconds of courage, and connect bravely!
- Explore broadly and with purpose
You might have a few ideas about what you care deeply about, what you’re good at, and what you might want to pursue as a career. But know that most of us at your age, including many of the faculty sitting behind me and many successful people in this audience, found that at 18 we hadn’t had enough experience inside or outside of a classroom to really know for sure. Sometimes a negative experience—a class that resulted in a grade that was farther into the alphabet than we were comfortable with, or an internship that seemed more like a prison sentence—led us in different directions. Conversely, many of us took a class reluctantly because it had an open seat and fulfilled a requirement, but in the end, it revealed a latent passion and talent for a subject that we didn’t know we had. Use your first two or three semesters and sample the curriculum and our student organizations broadly to see what you can learn about yourself and the world in which you live.
Explore with purpose. Stage your participation so that you don’t get overwhelmed at any one time. Consider whether you are allowing what you learned from your last set of classes and activities to inform your choice of which to pursue next, based on what you learned about yourself and Furman. Are at least a few of the courses that you’ve taken leading down one, two, or three potential major paths? I’m NOT advocating for a triple major, mind you, but am suggesting that you use your exploration phase to test out several potential major pathways. Discuss these plans with your advisor. Their experiences might help you identify additional opportunities or avoid common pitfalls.
- Reflect frequently
OK, let’s just say it. The word “reflection” sounds intimidating and maybe even hokey to some of you. But truthfully, reflection is the main path by which human beings progress—not just in college, but in relationships, careers, and community and civic work. The athletes, musicians, and theater folks among you can probably recall thinking back on a performance and asking, How did that go? What might we do differently next time? Our Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection, through a variety of workshops and engaged learning experiences, helps students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members reflect on a) who they are most authentically, b) what they believe most deeply, and c) what the world needs from them. That form of reflection can yield insights that help people develop their sense of purpose and find ways to incorporate it into their professional and volunteer work. We expect the Cothran way of thinking to continue to permeate our approach to mentoring and advising elsewhere around campus over the next several years.
In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, titled Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection (Even if you Hate Doing It), Jennifer Porter shares her interpretation of how reflection enhances learning:
Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. For leaders, this “meaning making” is crucial to their ongoing growth and development.
In your first year of college, pause regularly to ask a few simple questions to improve your understanding of the material that you are learning in your classes, to connect ideas across classes and academic disciplines. A few minutes of daily or weekly reflection can even improve your academic performance. Reflection will also help you convert your experiences, such as internships, undergraduate research, study away, volunteer work, and leadership activities, into meaningful insights and ultimately deeper learning. The foundations of life-long learning are really curiosity, experience-seeking, and reflection.
With The Furman Advantage, expect more Furman professors, mentors, and staff to ask you to reflect on your classwork and other learning experiences. Like your relationships and your classes, you will get more out of these exercises if you invest yourself more deeply in them. And don’t forget that you can visit the Cothran Center, which is located in the Trone Center, to enhance your ability to reflect in different ways for different purposes in order improve your learning and develop more fully your own sense of purpose.
- Adjust quickly
College, like life in general, will not always go as you hoped or planned. The major that you thought you would pursue might be composed of classes that you detest. You might find that you are failing a class that you thought you would excel in. Or that one of the organizations that you’ve joined is especially fulfilling for you, but two others that you’ve joined are not. An honest reflection on how things are going and a willingness to redirect your energy in positive ways will help. If you know you didn’t study much for that test, for example, there is a clear path to improvement for the next one. But if you’ve done everything the instructor suggested and you’ve been working long hours for the class, that’s different. It might be time to drop it—or withdraw from that organization that’s not meeting your needs.
Many of us have been indoctrinated to believe that we should never quit, and there are certainly times when that’s true. But sometimes, a situation that’s not working and not likely to get better is best addressed by extracting yourself from it so that you can devote your time and energy in a more productive and positive way. How should you determine whether you are in a “never give up” or “get out quick” situation? Reach out to your professors and/or advisor. They will have seen other students in similar situations over the years and can help you understand and contextualize the costs and benefits of your choices and determine which lessons might be learned from this experience. Still not sure? Contact one of our associate deans, Michelle Horhota or Jeremy Cass to discuss a serious academic choice that you are facing.
In their book, Practice for Life, Cuba, et al. describe college as an ongoing series of choices and opportunities to experience, reflect, react, and reinvent. They point out that this is not just a first-year phenomenon. In your junior year, for example, your best friends might be on study away, and the skills you developed as a first-year student will again be useful. At Furman, we see this process of evolution and reinvention as part of your four-year pathway. The truth is, the pathway doesn’t end in four years. When I speak with my colleagues who are contemplating retirement, it’s clear that we, as professors, continue to learn from what we’ve done and where we’ve been as we try to anticipate the unknown that lies ahead. College, and The Furman Advantage, offers an opportunity to begin forming habits like connecting, exploring, reflecting, and adjusting, which will give you the foundation for a fulfilling and engaging life.
Best wishes to all of you, and know that while we will challenge you in ways that you can’t possibly imagine over the next four years, we are also here to support you.