The Big Shift

At Saint Mary’s, professors ask students to step into the unfamiliar, even though it can get messy and uncomfortable.

big shift

After traveling to Brazil’s Amazon in January, Hoi Wong ’14 shifted his graduate school focus from federal law enforcement to international development. Cassie Brunelle’s junior year experience studying in Barcelona in 2011 so profoundly altered her worldview that upon her return she questioned her deep commitment to her lacrosse team and reconsidered her future plans. Jennifer Tolcher ’15 overcame her fears about working in the rain forest during January Term and found a resilience she didn’t know she had.

These three students—along with hundreds of their classmates—discovered their ability to navigate the unknown, grew comfortable with being uncomfortable, and altered their view of themselves and the world as a result, thanks to their Saint Mary’s experience.

While Saint Mary’s takes great care with its students—class sizes are small and professors are easy to talk to—it also nudges them into uncomfortable situations on purpose. Through the signature Collegiate Seminar program, the robust study-abroad program (about 150 students take classes out of the country every year), and intense service-learning trips during Jan Term, students trade ideas, work as a group, arrive at solutions together and take risks while the adult leaders—ideally—step aside.

For many students, it is the first time they have been in a situation where they are in charge. Because Seminar professors arrive at the table having to decipher Plato or Cervantes text along with the rest of their class, the typical class hierarchy does not exist. Jan Term trip leaders arrive in the Amazon or Haiti, brainstorming alongside fellow team members about how to best fix a roof. And Saint Mary’s students have to navigate a new culture and language without parents or familiar teachers in countries from Spain to Mexico. This collective experience forces students on this cozy, pristine campus to radically shift their life perspective, giving them the tools to think for themselves, listen to others, and approach challenges with creativity and openness.

One of the chief goals of Collegiate Seminar “is to advance students’ abilities to develop and pursue meaningful questions in collaboration with others, even in the context of confusion, paradox, and/or disagreement.” But in our new black-and-white social media world—where you’re either for something or against it—dominated by angry online comments, “Likes” on Facebook and teeming Twitter followers, there is less room for respectful disagreement and considering other opinions.

“Students who are always comfortable don’t experience the deeper learning that is possible.” - Ryan Lamberton ’05, M.A. ’12

Ideally, Seminar students learn about “risk-taking, being vulnerable, giving people access to your messy thought processes, to the fact that you don’t know, being able to hear disagreement without taking it personally and finding it offensive, not buckling under and feeling like you are a horrible person because you didn’t understand Sophocles on the first read and somebody else in the class did,” said Psychology Professor Jose Feito, who also directs the Seminar program.

Collegiate Seminar, an outgrowth of the Great Books program that began in 1941, is still central to Saint Mary’s core curriculum and has just finished its second year of a major redesign. The revamped curriculum aims to introduce students more gradually to the Seminar style of learning, with a new reading list that includes more multicultural authors, and more chances to reflect on the learning process, Feito said.

Few of the Seminar authors make for a light read. Students often must grapple with thinking from another age, and work to relate it to the present day. But this kind of struggle is crucial, especially at this developmental age of 18 to 22, said Ryan Lamberton ’05, M.A. ’12, community engagement coordinator for the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) and instructor for two recent Jan Term trips to Rwanda.

“It’s finding that balance of challenge and support, bringing the students right up to their learning edge, that edge of discomfort,” said Lamberton, whose small group of students examined the history, culture and development of Rwanda, culminating with an overnight at the homes of Lasallian families. “Students who are always comfortable don’t experience the deeper learning that is possible. Often in the spaces and places of discomfort or anxiety it can get messy and so instructors, too, have to be comfortable with entering into the unknown.”

Key to students discovering their own capacity for leadership and initiative is the willingness of teachers to step out of their traditional classroom roles and into the same uneasy position as their students. In Seminar, professors are not usually experts on the complicated—and often ancient—texts in the curriculum. Because Seminar faculty come from all different disciplines, Feito explained, students could have a physicist teaching Virginia Woolf or an English professor teaching Charles Darwin.

“You put me in this classroom where I have to teach literature, and it can be very scary for me because I don’t know what Jane Austen meant when she wrote this particular passage,” said Feito, a psychologist. “So I get to be placed in that same seat as the other students, if I’m willing to take that seat. The idea is that we are all coming to the table with the same starting point, which is the text. If we bring in outside expertise, it shuts the other people out.”

Associate Dean of Liberal Arts Shawny Anderson, who also teaches Seminar, said that the same situation exists in the Jan Term trips she has led since 2002. “I am convincing them to become a responsible group and then I am a member of the group,” said Anderson, who takes students into extreme poverty situations to collaborate with host communities in places like Haiti, post-hurricane New Orleans and Dominica. “Once we get there, we are all just equal members of an overall group that has a singular purpose.”

Wong, the senior who changed his graduate school focus, said of his Jan Term trip with Anderson, “You work with the professor rather than work under the professor, and you learn from each other.”

Once instructors step back and meld into the group, it’s the students’ chance to stretch themselves. They learn how to collaborate—a priceless life skill that Saint Mary’s students acquire during their experience in Seminar, service-learning trips and study abroad.

“We are all sitting there problem-solving together,” said Tolcher, who traveled to Brazil with Anderson this year and is also on the Seminar governing board. “Even Shawny will throw out an idea. Seminar and those trips put you on an equal playing field, but it’s not so much about the professor telling you how to read a passage or solve a problem. Everyone has all these ideas to make one big idea.”

“I am trying to teach the importance of unity and the power of unity in getting you where you are trying to go,” said Anderson, who took students on a Jan Term trip to the Brazilian Amazon—with limited electricity, running water and Internet—to work on community development projects, language instruction, ecological work and building. “Part of what’s going on with this shared inquiry is that you are developing this kind of shared connectedness that’s different than whatever is going on in the dorms or on the teams; this intellectual connectedness is different. These students get this shared sense of perspective which is not homogenous.”

“What’s developing is a certain kind of maturity about how to be in community in a meaningful way, that involves putting yourself out there and taking a risk,” Feito said.

So what happens to a student who emerges from Jan Term, Seminar or a semester abroad? For many students, it’s like pushing a human reset button. They report following new directions and seeing life through a sharply different lens.

“Once I got to Barcelona, I thrived in a way I had not been challenged to before and found it more rewarding than I imagined,” said Cassie Brunelle ’13, from Boise, Idaho, who went to Spain as a junior. “I was capable of being immersed in new cultures and loved it. And I could develop meaningful friendships with people from all over, and that openness and those connections have given me experiences I will forever cherish. Once I got to Barcelona, everything became possible.”

Brunelle, the lacrosse player who came back to Saint Mary’s only to make the difficult choice to withdraw from her beloved team, turned often for advice to Maria Flores, associate director, Center for International Programs, as she wrestled with her new future. “This is a student that had her college experience paved for her, and upon her return she questioned everything and that’s what you want,” Flores said. “A colleague once told me, ‘Study abroad is the time and space for you to rethink what you thought you knew.’” Brunelle, who graduated in 2013, now works for a nonprofit in Oakland and remains involved in the lacrosse world as an occasional coach and player.

“I was capable of being immersed in new cultures and loved it.”
- Cassie Brunelle ’13

Rethinking, it would seem, is central to this shared Saint Mary’s experience.

“It changes your sense of what’s possible. People come home and they clean out their parents’ garages—that’s nothing when they get back from these trips. They have a different sense of what they’re capable of and what kind of work they can learn and do,” said Anderson, whose students return to choose careers in public policy, social work, the Peace Corps and nonprofits.

After his Jan Term experience with Anderson, Wong, a senior who transferred from De Anza Community College in Mountain View for his junior year, changed his graduate school subject from federal law enforcement—he has served in the Army National Guard for more than five years, and was posted to Afghanistan for a year—to international development.

“When I came back, I wasn’t focusing much on studying things that would make money, but rather, things that I enjoy doing,” said Wong, who hopes to someday work for the United Nations or the United States Agency of International Development, particularly in the Middle East. “[The trip] definitely transformed my career and my passion and what I want to study. Being there was a different kind of freedom. You’re free from technology and thinking about money, paying bills and capitalistic society. It gave me a different perspective on life.”

Said Lamberton, “They come out realizing that they can do far more than they imagined beforehand.”

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