Friday, September 4, 2015

MY name is . . . !

     Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting a number of DU students who were part of our Excelling Leaders Institute, or ELI.  The program was described to me:

ELI is a four-year leadership development and community building program that focuses upon and accentuates the strengths of all participants, while providing mentorship and academic resources to ensure their success at DU and post-graduation. Through our mission of developing leaders that will engage within the university and larger communities in order to create community, endless leadership opportunities and ensure academic success, ELI seeks to create an open and inclusive campus environment for students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds as they transition to DU.

I've met ELI students in prior years, and I've come to recognize the value of this program, and the amazing nature of the students who are part of it.
      As I often do when I meet incoming students, I asked one of them which program he was entering.  And he gave me the answer that I like hearing the most, something along the lines of:  "I'm going to try various things and see where I find the best fit."  He was SO excited to be here, so ready-to-be-engaged.  Given that the mission of ELI is to play to the students' strengths, this student's desire to "wait and see" seemed just perfect!  I can easily believe that, at the end of his time at DU, the "fit" will be right.
      I found myself contrasting what he told me with one of the major plot features in a book I've read several times over the years, but am reading right now again:  My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.  The story is of a young Hasidic boy, Asher Lev, who has an amazing gift in the visual arts:  he draws and paints.  Everyone who sees his "work" recognizes the extraordinary nature of his ability.  The problem is that it is NOT a gift that is particularly valued in his community, or by his parents (even though they will compliment his paintings). The community and his school fret that he's not paying attention to the "important" subjects, the subjects valuable to his standing in the Hasidic community -- studying Torah and Talmud. (I'll leave it here; no spoilers as to how the story evolves.)
      Asher's story is not necessarily an unusual one for those of us who work at colleges or universities.  Most of us have had interactions with students who come to school with high familial, or communal, expectations.  And, since the cost of this level of education is so high, most students feel bounden to acquiesce to those expectations.  Yet there are those who simply would rather be poets than physicists, or who would rather major in English than engineering.  And the challenge is set . . . and the students are torn.
      I wish we saw more students like the ELI student I mentioned above -- waiting to see how their strengths and the coming opportunities met, played together, and then played out.  I wish, too, that we had the resources to create such a learning, empowering, environment for all of our students -- not just at DU, but prior to, or parallel to it at other institutions.  At base, it's a question of helping these individuals come into their vocation, their calling . . . which may transition into a job or a career.  But let's empower them first to claim their own name, their individuality, based on their strengths and interests.  Their contribution to our common good will be that much greater.



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