The One Thing My Daughter Needed to Know to Make Her College Decision

In the summer of 2019, my wife and I took our eldest child, Martha, on her first college visits, which included a couple of places on the East Coast while we were visiting family. She was mildly interested in two of the three places we visited, but it was pretty clear that she was not as ready for the college search as we were as excited parents. But, those visits to Susquehanna, Bucknell, and the University of Delaware put into motion a process that concluded this past Thursday when she made her decision. 

I am sure our daughter’s search process was a little different from those of many of her Class of 2022 peers. First, she has a father who currently works in higher education and a mother who once worked in college admissions, alumni relations, and external relations. Despite the 40 years’ worth of professional higher ed experience under our belts, we never anticipated the one thing that ultimately gave her the assurance that she could make a decision. While many topics related to fit, finances, and future certainly came up in the discussion, those topics didn’t seem to be as vital to her decision-making process as we thought they would be. In fact, after being witness to this process, I think that we in the admissions world might overemphasize “fit.”

Why? There are a lot of fantastic schools out there. Martha truly would have been a great fit at a half dozen of the places to which she was admitted. So, while fit was important, it didn’t carry the day and our parental emphasis on “finding the place that just feels right” likely fell a bit short for Martha, who could see herself thriving at any number of places. For her, the thunderbolt never came.

In retrospect, what we may have interpreted as a lack of engagement or excitement about the process (which we blamed at least partly on the pandemic messing up the last two years of her life), wasn’t. We’d certainly helped to guide her and posed questions for Martha to ask herself as she considered her many strong options, but we’d overlooked the big thing that Martha had on her mind and it wasn’t until last week that we realized what we missed. 

So, what was one thing she needed to make her ultimate selection?

Last Thursday, Jennie–the recovering admission counselor in our household–had a text exchange with Martha about senior-related events. She segued to the ridiculously large elephant in the room and gently asked if there were any final pieces of information she needed or any issue she wanted to discuss with us in order for her to make a decision. Martha’s immediate text reply was like a punch to the face when Jennie later showed it to me. Martha texted, “I’m not a big fan of making long-term decisions that can alter the course of my entire life.” Whoa. That’s a pretty weighty response from our typically self-assured 17-year-old. Some might interpret Martha’s response as overly dramatic with perhaps a dash of snark; however, Jennie really heard what Martha was saying in that moment, which of course was, “I’m afraid I will make a mistake.”

Jennie had the perfect response and told Martha that “…no matter where you go or which major you choose, you ALWAYS have the option to change your mind and change course.” Jennie later shared that she sensed immediate relief in Martha’s voice and the conversation continued. She reassured Martha that choosing a college is not a written-in-stone decision. She explained that if it doesn’t work out or if she discovers that the place she selected wasn’t a great match for her, we would support her in finding a place that does through the transfer process (after all, it really hurt to break up with some of those schools). Martha needed to hear us say out loud that choosing a college isn’t a forever decision, and that we were going to support her no matter what. This is exactly what she needed to hear and be reassured of in order to make her decision. About 45 seconds after receiving reassurance, Martha confidently made her choice.

Martha will be a member of the entering class at Saint Louis University in the fall and we are very proud of her and excited for her future. Now please excuse me while I go put a SLU sticker on my car.

This was a humbling and important lesson for me as a parent and professional and I am committed to helping prospective students understand from the very beginning of the college search that the decision is not a decision of the magnitude Martha thought it had. I hope my colleagues and thousands of parents across the country will join me in helping lower the stakes surrounding this decision for young people.

We are excited for Martha and relieved the search is over. 

Now, in the event you have some questions about Martha’s search, please feel free to continue. 

*Martha applied to 14 colleges and was admitted to 12 (she was denied admission to one and waitlisted at the other). 

*Martha had terrific options, ranging from small national liberal arts colleges to mid-sized comprehensive universities to one R1.

*Martha looked at colleges that offered Tuition Exchange as well as those that did not participate in the program or did not end up offering TE. She was offered TE by six of the twelve TE schools to which she was admitted. This was a good reminder that a student has to be admitted to a college AND offered Tuition Exchange and it’s not a guarantee 

*Martha complained about having to login to multiple portals. This was a helpful insight for me, given that the portals are convenient for an Office of Admission, but a pain for students. 

*Martha is interested in art and art history. She paid attention to facilities in the same way student-athletes and pre-med students do. And, she had plenty of feedback about places where the art facilities felt like an afterthought. She was very impressed by a few places that had made recent investments in the fine and performing arts facilities. 

*Martha’s interest in art led her to consider colleges in cities because of the access to art museums, galleries, and internships. She’s still very much drawn to the value of a liberal arts education, but location mattered more to her than I had initially imagined.

*Martha was very interested in the diversity of each college community. The exposure she’s had to diversity as a student at a larger, public, urban school has been important and I am proud of her desire to surround herself with a diverse community. 

*Martha found social media accounts to be very, VERY important in helping her see if there were other people like her at the colleges and universities she was considering. Emails–even from those in her final four–rarely were opened. Same for most direct mail pieces.

*17- and 18-year-olds can be fickle. We encouraged Martha to jot down her thoughts after each one visit. One “pro” from her list: great Balsamic salad dressing at the cafeteria’s salad bar. One “con”: Really big hill to walk to and from the art building


I’ve worked in higher education for nearly 30 years, and last week I had the most powerful educational experience yet…and it was in a prison

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation from Dr. Sharon Varallo to attend final presentations by 10 Augustana students who happen to be incarcerated at East Moline Correctional Center. I feel truly privileged to have been invited to attend and get to know these Augustana students, who are admittedly different from most with whom I interact. 

My initial role with the Augustana Prison Education Program (APEP) was to help connect a donor with Dr. Varallo, who was channeling her passion into a really compelling program. But, once the money came in the door and the program was underway, I hadn’t given it much thought. 

That changed when I was asked to facilitate a panel discussion that included two faculty members teaching in the program and a trustee from the foundation that made the grant that funds APEP. During that 65-minute Zoom webcast, it became very clear to me that something special was happening in the classroom at East Moline Correctional Center. 

I wanted to know more. Dr. Varallo’s invitation followed shortly thereafter, and I accepted with excitement and a bit of unease. (I hadn’t been in a jail since I was six or seven, when I had thrown rocks through some windows and my father took me over to the county jail as a learning experience). 

The visit was scheduled for December 7. Jacob Bobbitt, another administrator on campus, and I were invited to watch final presentations. But late in the day on the Friday before, we were notified that we could not go on the scheduled day because that was the day the students at East Moline Correctional Center were getting their COVID-19 booster shots. I thought then that the visit might not happen at all, because it was so late in the semester, but Dr. Varallo worked a miracle and rescheduled everything for the next morning. 

Getting to the classroom was what you might imagine it would be like: guards, gates, temperature checks, dated facilities and incarcerated people (all men) wearing the same thing. Jacob and I were led by Dr. Paul Olsen, Augustana Professor Emeritus of English and retired coach, on the half-mile walk to the Augustana College classroom. 

We got there early and were met by two Augustana students enrolled in APEP who were practicing their presentations. Let me say, I was impressed already. 

The classroom is adorned with all kinds of Augustana College posters and pennants. 

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Both of the men immediately stopped and greeted “Olsen.” They also introduced themselves to Jacob and myself with an enthusiastic handshake. It was clear to me from the very beginning that these men take pride in their connection to Augustana College and the opportunity they have to earn a bachelor’s degree through APEP. 

The rest of the students also showed up early, save one who had received permission to complete an activity in the library and arrive later. Upon entering the classroom, each student greeted Jacob and me in the same way as the first two students. Each took his seat, which I believe had been assigned, and things got rolling. 

I was already so moved by the enthusiasm these students demonstrated for learning and the opportunity that I’d have left with very positive views of APEP without even seeing the presentations. These were impressive students. But, after listening to the presentations, I was transformed by the experience. 

Dr. Varallo had given them the assignment to make a persuasive argument about the value of each one of Augustana College’s Learning Perspectives—the foundation of the college’s general education requirements. It was an imaginative assignment for a host of reasons, but it was especially interesting to witness what these students put into it. 

Each student had one of the following to defend, and then persuade his fellow classmates of the value of taking course work within each area: 

“Universal” Human Experiences


 Natural Sciences              

 Social Sciences   


 Additional Languages

 Global, Diversity-Focused



Each student clearly explained the learning perspective, identified a compelling reason why it was part of the General Education Program, cited a course or two that sounded especially interesting, presented evidence and context for their persuasive argument, and defended the overall value of that learning perspective to becoming a truly educated person. 

As I listened to these presentations, I could not help but think how valuable it would be for all first-year students at Augustana to hear these men champion the backbone of an Augustana liberal arts education. These students, who know that they have an incredible opportunity, also seem to understand that Augustana will equip them with a view of life both deep and panoramic. They hope to be able to apply the knowledge and perspectives they are gaining in a productive and positive way beyond the walls and fences of East Moline Correctional Center. 

I hope, after this experience, to see their graduation from Augustana College. They proved to me that they are serious about college, bettering themselves, and the opportunity of the liberal arts. I look forward to welcoming them to the world as well educated citizens with an expansive future and more open doors. 

APEP is a grant-funded program, supported through the generosity of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Gifts can be made online at www.augustana.edu/makeagift, or through wire transfer, gifts of stock or personal check. When making an online gift, select “other” as an area of support, and enter “APEP” in the box provided. Mail checks to: Augustana College, Advancement Services, 639 38th St., Rock Island, IL 61201. For major gift support ($5,000 or more), contact Kent Barnds, executive vice president of external relations, at kentbarnds@augustana.edu or 309-230-7743.

What exactly is an admissions professional to do when his first-born is applying to college? #emchat #admissions #commonapp #commonapplication #commonappresources #highered

This college application season is different for this experienced admissions professional because I have a 17-year-old daughter who is going through the college search process. I must admit that I am seeing the process with a completely new set of eyes. 

I see print mail from colleges lay on the counter unopened–even from the place that I think might be her first choice. I ask if she’s visited websites or read the email, and I typically get a shrug of sorts or maybe a brief look up from her phone with another look that seems to say, “Are you really asking this again?” 

I’ve felt like it’s been my job as a parent to ask these questions to try to gain some insight into what she’s thinking; however, I am afraid that some of my overtures have come off as nagging. I imagine some of you might be feeling similarly. 

However, last week I discovered a pretty important role that I can play in three specific ways. 

First, my wife had downloaded some really amazing resources from the Common App as well as some other online resources that helped focus my involvement in my daughter’s search for the moment.

My wife and I completed the worksheet independently and then discussed our answers before combining this into one. It was a very rewarding experience as a parent and it sure was reassuring that my wife and I agreed 95% of the time about what we see in our daughter. It’s my understanding that these worksheets will be a resource both for the school counselor and any teacher who our daughter asks to write a letter of recommendation (at least that’s what we’ve recommended).

We also completed a worksheet that is available free of charge from the Common App. The Common App’s “Parent Brag Sheet” is an excellent resource for parents, grandparents and those supporting a student’s application. The worksheet includes predictable questions about strengths and weaknesses. Still, it also invites perspective on how a student has responded to setbacks, whether particular life events have impacted the student and what makes the student unique. It’s a really, really, really good resource and gave me something significant and productive to do to help other than nag. 

Accessing the various free parent resources helps provide a fuller picture of your student to their school counselor and recommenders. And, the bonus is that if you are going to feel pretty darn good about that kid you’ve raised. 

One final strategy we will try to implement in the coming month is to make sure we don’t let the college search take over our lives. It is to identify a standing time once a week for a 30-minute conversation about all things college. Of course, anytime she wants to have a conversation in or outside of that space, we will! Creating a shared space and restricting our questions, concerns and worries to that time will give her the space to continue taking ownership of this process. And with a lot less nagging. 

Applying to college before the school year begins

It’s summer of 2021 and time to get serious about applying for the fall of 2022… even if the water is cold!

For the past several months, my daughter, who just finished her junior year of high school, has been receiving invitations from colleges to submit her application for the fall of 2022. 

As a parent, I read these communications and say to myself, “Gosh, isn’t it a little early?” But as an admissions professional, this morning I reviewed several drafts of an email we are about ready to send to prospective students like my daughter, sharing the news that our application for the fall of 2022 is open.

I now find myself having to reconcile my initial, parental feelings, with the reality that many students will not only start applying for fall of 2022, but soon will be receiving admissions decisions. The fall 2022 admissions cycle is here this summer, and is about to heat up. 

As a parent for 17 years and a college admissions professional for nearly 30, I need to jump in, even if the water is cold. 

So here are some things on my mind. Rest assured, I’ll be sharing this advice with my daughter (if she’ll listen).  

Don’t apply on a whim.

Just because a college waives the application fee, don’t apply just to apply. Whimsical applications seldom lead to a great outcome. Applying to a place about which you are not serious has all the signatures of trophy-collecting.

Further, someone on the other end is going to have to process that application, send you all sorts of reminders about completing the application and then read your application with all seriousness. Apply to those colleges you are truly interested in. 

You don’t need to have everything ready to go.

Submitting an application and responding to those invitations from colleges does not require you to have your transcript, letters of recommendation, essays, etc. Colleges and universities seldom see the arrival of a tidy little package of materials and are quite accustomed to piecing an application together over weeks or months.  It only begins with the application, which for the most part is just some personal information.  

Applying early could get you more attention, and sooner.

At many colleges, submitting your application earlier in the process will catch the eye of the admissions officer who will be working with you at a time of year when they might have more time to reach out and get to know you. Don’t underestimate how much easier it is to connect with an admissions staff member right now.

Think about how busy you will be when you go back to school in August. Admissions officers will be equally busy, traveling from high school to high school and catching planes, trains and automobiles trying to connect with students like you. 

Applying when you have time is better than waiting for the season of deadlines.

As I enter my 30th year of college admissions work, I can think of nothing more stressful for prospective students than an application deadline. These deadlines often come at the same time as other pressing commitments for seniors. 

It’s the summer before your senior year. Applying to college is just a step in the process of finding the one for you. What better time to get serious about this step toward a bright future? 

Working and leading remotely: Same old, same old.

Many are finding it challenging to work and lead without the benefit of occupying the same space as teammates. I am sympathetic and get it.

I know some are struggling with access to files and technology. Others are finding remote work and leadership difficult because they are missing the important social interactions that comes with working in an office. There are many reasons that people are finding work more challenging, but the concept of working and leading remotely certainly is a contributing factor.

But, in all candor, I don’t really think that working out of my basement storage room is much different from the way I work with my team members all of the time.

I feel like I not only have a level of comfort with all of this, I think I have an advantage.

Here’s why I think I have an advantage.

First, I trust my team members—all of them—admissions, financial aid, communications & marketing, alumni relations, development and the good people at WVIK—because they are awesome at their jobs and always put stakeholders above themselves. When people are awesome at their job, one doesn’t need to babysit them and constantly check in with them eyeball to eyeball. Not seeing people for a month or more isn’t going to diminish the confidence I have in my teammates to do great work.

Next, I am comfortable with remote work because I already manage a number of people who spend a lot of their time working away from campus. I am blessed to have three amazing colleagues who work remotely as regional admissions representatives. I understand their work and how they work and have a level of comfort with it that I can simply extend to everyone else who is now working remotely. Moreover, the very nature of leading an admissions and advancement team requires leading people who are engaged in remote work all the time. I mean, seriously, admissions folks are out recruiting, living out of a car for months, and, great development officers spend more time out of the office than in the office. Heck, my director of international recruitment spends six weeks at a time halfway across the globe. Remote work isn’t really new and there are plenty of mentors to help those who don’t have as much experience.

Finally, over the course of the past few years, when I took on responsibility for two large administrative divisions at the college, I started splitting my time between two different physical offices on campus. I guess I’ve been a bit of a remote leader for some time. And, I don’t use remote to mean disengaged or distant. But, the fact is that I am not always present for someone to pop into my office and see me face-to-face. I’ve had to figure out ways to be fully present, even when my presence isn’t with those who may need my attention. This is a lot like what I’ve found myself doing for the past two weeks from my bunker in my storage room at home. The chats, Zooms, Google Hangouts, texts, calls and emails don’t seem a lot different to me. My level of comfort of leading remotely has grown considerably and may even result in better, more timely responses to members of my team and other colleagues, than when I am tied up in meetings that could have been handled by a phone call.

I kind of like all of this, because it’s not a lot different for me than a typical day “in the office.” What I do miss is my near-daily ritual of making my rounds around Seminary, Founders and Sorensen Halls saying “good morning” to all of my amazing colleagues. But, I am learning to interact with everyone else in the same way I’ve been working with my regional staff and all of those hearty travels over the course of the years.

What I’ve learned in my first week of working remotely: My team is awesome

Today marks one week working remotely. I’ve set up shop in the storage room in our basement, which has me surrounded by lots of treasures—antiques, painting the girls have done and lots of photography props (I have a superhero backdrop for video conferences).

I’ve settled into a nice routine and feel like I am getting important work done. And, I feel like I am dangerously close to regaining a sense of normalcy; I think that will come when the senior leadership team starts to back off of 90-minute conference calls first thing each morning.

My first week has reinforced some things about my team members that are worth sharing.

Below are a couple of observations about the good people at Augustana College, who work in External Relations (admissions, advancement, financial aid, communications & marketing and WVIK—Quad Cities Public Radio)

My team members are incredibly nimble—I have been incredibly impressed by how flexible, nimble and responsive everyone in External Relations has been since we received word that we’d be working remotely. People figured out what they needed to get their work done and continue to make a meaningful and impactful contribution to the effort. Nothing was overlooked. People loaded up their cars, bags, backpacks and reservoirs of goodwill to make sure our work continued without disruption. Whether it was designing new processes, packing the gong, loading materials to print and process offers of admissions, getting notecards and envelopes, or bringing a desktop computer home to set up, this crew showcased that they can go with the flow and make it all work. (I have another phrase I often use to describe this, but will keep it clean).

My team members will step up when asked—To a person, members of the External Relations team have stepped up when asked to do so. Honestly, they’ve often been there before being asked to step up. Several members of the team helped check students out of residence halls last weekend. New (and awesome) communication channels have emerged. New content has been produced to tell Augustana’s story. Team members have stepped in to familiarize themselves with new technology—chat functions, Zoom, Zoom breakout rooms, Google Hangouts and lots of other things that we’ve all had to learn on the fly.  

My team members say “yes”—Team members are getting new and unusual assignments and they are saying “yes!” I haven’t heard “maybe” or “can’t someone else do this?” I’ve heard nothing other than “yes.” Yes has translated to taking charge and we can do it.

My team members are creative—My team members, across the entire division, have been two or three steps ahead of me for the past two weeks. They seem to anticipate everything and have multiple ways we can respond. I have been humbled by their creativity and out-of-the-box responsiveness. They are not waiting for permission. They are trusting their instincts and moving forward. They are addressing every obstacle with creativity and a confidence that is truly remarkable.

My team members seem to be excited by new—There is new energy that I sense every single time I engage with members of the External Relations team right now. I know some of that energy is because folks know what an awesome responsibility we have to ensure Augustana College weathers this storm. This crisis has provided team members with the latitude (and attitude) to try new and different things to recruit students, engage alumni, raise money and communicate clearly and compellingly. New and different has unleashed excitement and an entrepreneurial spirit that I sense in every engagement I have with my team members.

My team members have continually placed care for others above all else—Perhaps what has impressed me most, though, is the care for others that my team members have showcased throughout. Calls, video chats and emails to student workers have created a much needed connection between the college and our students. Outreach to colleagues who need a little TLC in setting up some of the needed virtual tools has become a norm. Periodic check-ins just to see how someone is holding up have become part of the daily routine for many. And, all outreach that team members are doing to prospective students, parents, alumni, donors, influencers and the public begins with a commitment to caring for others.

I previously joked that, for someone in my role, there is not enough vodka and Tums to get through this unknown period of time that includes the conclusion of the student recruitment cycle, the kick-off of the cycle for next year, fiscal year-end and the last six months of a comprehensive campaign. But, having an amazing group of people surrounding me and showcasing daily why and how they are so awesome helps. #AugustanAwesome

A few thoughts about working from home.

* I sent this to my team members early in our time working remotely.


First, thank you for your support, patience and cooperation over the course of the past few days as I’ve worked with fellow Cabinet members to chart new territory. You’ve demonstrated uncommon understanding and I am very grateful to each of you. Thank you.

I also want to thank you for already getting creative and preparing new and different ways to approach our collective work. Your ingenuity and willingness to do different makes me very proud. You have my full gratitude.

If you are anything like me, you might be struggling with routine right now and getting into a work rhythm. Uncertainty, concern for the safety of our students and family members and lots and lots of interruptions have me off my game. And, a new work environment is likely to further complicate this. So, I thought I might offer a couple of thoughts for you (and me).

1. Establish a routine immediately that is as close to your typical workday as possible. If you work out in the morning, work out. If you enjoy a cup of coffee before work, have that cup of coffee. If you usually catch up with a couple of colleagues each morning as part of your daily routine, schedule a call or Zoom or check in by phone. Don’t let this disruption change your routine and what you do to be energized.

2. Approach work from a distance in the way you do going to the office. Get up. Shower. Get dressed for work. Find a home office in which to work. We need full and complete engagement from everyone through this crisis. This is not a snow day.

3. Make a daily list of what you plan to accomplish and add three additional things to your initial list each day. Without interruptions, you will be more productive. But, you must have goal-focused work. This daily list is also a good tool to share with your supervisor, too.

4. Approach this time as an opportunity to do something that never gets above number five on your to-do list. Now is our chance to get ahead in prospect development, student recruitment, a deferred project, customized outreach and thank yous. We have an amazing opportunity to out-hustle others and I know we can do it.

5. Believe it or not, this is wonderful opportunity for collaboration; take advantage of it. People are not traveling or vacationing and should be available in different ways for collaboration. Let’s work together. 

I am writing this while on the elliptical this morning as part of sticking to my routine and maintaining my health. I hope you will find safe and productive ways to take care of yourself, too.

Please know I am here for any of your questions and am happy to hop on the phone, etc. Our work and our efforts are going to be critically important to how well the college makes it thought this crisis.

Classroom Sessions: Introduction to #Anthropology: “Be good people” #liberalarts #highered #augustanacollege

When I attended Dr. Adam Kaul’s Anthropology class, I knew from the moment I sat in my seat that this was going to be different from any class I’d visited so far this fall. 

It was lively, and the rapport between Dr. Kaul and the students was genuine and warm. There was quite a bit of banter as students entered and settled in the classroom. It felt like a safe space for students to exchange ideas without judgment. I am quite sure this is, no doubt, in part, because of this statement in his syllabus: 

“In this class we will discuss social issues that might be deemed sensitive (e.g. religion, race & racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, etc). For a variety of reasons these topics might cause discomfort for some people. A reasonable amount of discomfort is actually good for the learning process because learning should always challenge our assumptions. That said, you should never be expected to tolerate unreasonable discomfort, and certainly not when it is inflicted upon you from your classmates or teachers. I do not tolerate intentionally disrespectful language or behavior in my class. I expect you to treat one another with civility and decency, and I will absolutely do my best to treat everyone with the utmost respect. Here are some group rules for respectful class participation:

  1. Begin by acknowledging and respecting each other’s differences. This is called “tolerance” and it is not enough.
  2. Go beyond tolerance. Try to understand each other’s differences. This requires “active listening” and empathy.
  3. Give yourself and others permission to make mistakes. There really are no dumb questions.
  4. Give yourself and others permission to self-correct and change your/their minds.”

Kaul expects students to prepare in advance and engage actively and deeply. In fact, there’s no space for a student who doesn’t do the work. This was obvious to me as I listened to pairs of students discuss the book-length ethnographies that each student had selected to read during the first 10 weeks of the semester. During the 10-minute discussions, I overhead both curiosity and connection, and didn’t once witness conversation about something other than the ethnographies. These students were into their reading, whether it was culture related to World of Warcraft, Second Life, sex workers, aboriginal peoples, the incarcerated, the drug addicted or Native Americans. 

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Throughout the session, Kaul continually reminded students about the importance of context—whether while listening to different dialects from the British isles or discussing access to healthcare. He did so in a gentle but very effective way. I can’t imagine any student completing this class without the valuable skill of being able to assess context. 

Awareness of and curiosity about context is one of the superpowers of a liberal arts education, and I was pleased to witness such deep emphasis on it. 

Kaul also spent time emphasizing the importance of agency. He asked questions about agency during discussions on the ethnographies and skillfully described the difference between choice and assimilation related to culture. He used meaningful examples to ask students if a marginalized culture had any choice or agency in responding to culture change. Kaul is planting the seeds for this group of students to consider whether one is empowered by or suppressed by dominant culture, and what it feels like to not have agency—something I am guessing that most in this class had not actively considered previously. 

Finally, in this intro class Kaul made a compelling case for all of us to become sociologists. Here’s what Kaul recommended, which might be relevant for all of the liberal arts:  

Go out and see it! 

Listen and learn! 


When in doubt, cite it! 

The 75-minute class session flew by for me. But, just as everyone was leaving, Kaul yelled out, “Have a good day and be good people.” I don’t know if this is a common farewell or conclusion to each class session, but I was struck by his words and stopped in place to write them down. 

I am quite confident the teaching and learning occurring in this class will ensure that these students are becoming and will be good people. And, frankly, that’s exactly what I expect from a liberal arts education. 

You can learn more about Dr. Kaul here.

Classroom sessions: A private music lesson: “There can be no right or wrong when you are living your life through art.” * #highered #augustanacollege

I had the privilege of sitting in on a private voice lesson with Dr. Sangeetha Rayapati and a senior preparing for her senior recital. My presence in this intimate setting was a remarkable and emotional experience for me. 

I was able to watch first-hand the personal attention that a student musician receives at Augustana. I listened to the vocalist (and her roommate, who will be singing in a couple of duets) warm up, using a “yippy dog,” exercise and then I heard them sing two gorgeous duets. Rayapati worked these two students hard for about a third of the lesson and then coached the senior preparing for the recital. 

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Rayapati teaches by example—and occasionally by a look, as she was accompanying on the piano. As a teacher she is constructive, affirming and direct. She clearly has high expectations. Most importantly, she has fun and encourages her students to do the same. 

In many ways, this one-on-one teaching and learning experience was a remarkable example of the wonder and promise of a liberal arts education. Here are some things that stood out: 

Effective storytelling – Throughout the lesson, Rayapati continually emphasized that singing and performing, when done well, effectively tell a story. The whole session was about refining the story that will be told at the recital. 

Conquering challenging material – This student will perform music in foreign languages at her recital and will push her voice range—both high and low. One could tell that the numbers she chose and the diverse genres are intended to challenge her in every conceivable way. 

Learning to work together – Listening to Rayapati coach and the two students work together to blend their voices was an example of the type of teamwork that I hope we teach here. There was plenty of give and take and there was compromise. 

Connecting with an audience – Rayapati really emphasized the importance of reading the audience and making a connection. She encouraged the student to place the audience above herself and to think about what they want and need from her performance. A great liberal arts education encourages students to reflect on their impact on others to build a deeper connection.  

Building confidence through challenge and support – A senior recital is intended to be a culminating, capstone experience. During moments of uncertainty on the part of the student, Rayapati skillfully built the student’s confidence with an encouraging word. I also saw the student respond with an “I got this” attitude that only a senior, with countless hours of practice and performance experience, could have.  

Developing a deep appreciation for beauty — I admit there were two moments during this session when I had to swallow pretty hard and look away from the others in the room. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the music and the gifts these musicians have been given and are sharing with the world. 

In addition, there was a moment that symbolizes what I hope happens all the time on a campus like Augustana’s. 

On the student’s program for the weekend is “Ave Maria.’ The student was struggling to convey the emotion because she professed to be non-religious. It was an interesting moment, but Rayapati didn’t miss a beat. She immediately asked two questions: When have you been in a religious setting and what did you witness? And, what is the context for people praying? The student reflected on both of these questions in a very thoughtful way. Then Rayapati shared advice she once received from a friend who is an opera singer: Singing is really about “doing something for other people.” 

For me, it was a magical moment that reminded me of how important it is for all of us to help our students think about the impact they have on others, and—perhaps in this moment of i-everything—to place others before self. 

This one-hour private lesson went so far beyond simply practicing the music for the weekend’s recital; the session emphasized all of what I would expect from a rigorous liberal arts education. 

Long live the arts and liberal arts education! 

*From the playful duet performed at this senior’s recital 

You can learn more about Dr. Rayapati here.

Classroom (science lab) Sessions: How about a little research with some really talented students? #liberalarts #augustanacollege #stem #highered

Earlier this fall when I’d asked Dr. Kimberly Murphy of the biology department if I could attend one of her classes, she urged me to attend a lab session rather than a lecture. I enthusiastically agreed, with visions of a white lab coat and goggles! 

I am confident that I was in this lab with some of Augustana’s very best students and an outstanding “guide by their side” in Dr. Murphy. I didn’t follow everything, since the last biology class I took was in 1988. There were words like protocol, plasmid, E. coli, controls, pellet and supernatant, and instruments like a centrifuge and vortexer. 

But, what I saw really impressed me and I left with some thoughts that shape my observations about the serious science that is happening in Hanson Hall of Science at Augustana College: 

Side-by-side teaching is awesome to observe—I don’t think there is any better example of side-by-side teaching than what happens in a lab. Murphy spent time with every single student. She was coaching, clarifying and querying constantly. I think it’s important to note that Murphy is not a graduate student or a lab assistant working with these awesome students…. She is a tenured member and chair of the biology department. Think about that! 

Augustana’s science facilities are amazing—Hanson Hall of Science was built in the 1990s, but this building and facilities are excellent. The labs are spacious and have the equipment needed to do serious benchtop research and experiments. Like a good Hootie & the Blowfish song from the same era, Hanson Hall holds up very well. 

Student interactions in a small lab are powerful—Watching lab partners work together is a thing of beauty. These teams of two or three are learning how to work together, negotiate, interrogate and solve problems. They have to work together—no soloists here—and they have to communicate. Lab partners did their best to find a solution together before engaging Murphy. I also noticed that students serving as lab partners seemed to take a genuine interest in their partner’s, and others’, success and learning. 

Real scientists don’t simply follow directions—Murphy carefully described the steps for the experiments, but I don’t think the object was for students to just follow directions. Murphy and the other lab instructors for Biology 130 are using this lab session to teach students about failure and success and how to navigate both. Through teaching about process and testing and retesting, these students are learning to conduct serious research and what it takes to succeed. 

Murphy contextualized what the students are expected to do in lab within her own pursuit of outside grants. She skillfully connected the task in lab that day to her own need to illustrate the value of her research to others, articulate the reasons for her research and the controls she uses. She implied that anyone can follow directions, but she wants these students to be scientists. 

Active, hands-on learning in the sciences is critical—in higher ed we talk a lot about hands-on learning, but a lab session is where the rubber meets the road. As an observer, even I got ridiculously excited when the experiment that was described at the beginning of the class actually came out exactly the way it was supposed to. I found myself thinking about that TV credit that has the audio of “I made this.” There is no more powerful learning than doing something for yourself and experiencing success. This is what we do at Augustana College! 

Perhaps my favorite part was overhearing two pre-vet students talk about a study-away opportunity in South Africa. One told the other about a $3,000 stipend available (in addition to $2,000 with Augie Choice) to bring the cost down. When one of the students brought up the fact that only 8 spots were available, the other replied, “Well, really, only six, because there is no one more qualified than the two of us.” 

I liked their spirit. This was a great reminder of the confidence that a liberal arts education builds in young people. These two are bound to have a great experience in South Africa!  

The lab was awesome even if I didn’t get to wear a lab coat. Maybe next time. 

Dr. Murphy joined the biology department at Augustana in August of 2011. Her interest in science has been life-long. Her desire to teach and mentor students developed from observing her father’s interaction with students as a professor and from the excitement of her undergraduate professors. 

In class, in the teaching lab, and in my research lab, she aims  to help students understand how science works, how to think like scientists, and to cultivate excitement for learning.

Her personal research has strengthened her abilities to develop scientific skills in students, and her current research projects are designed to include undergraduate students.

Dr. Murphy earned a Ph.D. in Genetics and Cell Biology from Washington State University.  

Her current research activities include identification and characterization of genes involved in fruiting body formation and motility in Myxococcus xanthus.  M. xanthus is a model organism for studying bacterial biofilms. In addition, her research includes annotation and analysis of a microbial genome from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and a third project on how amphibians use agricultural landscapes to move among wetlands.

Dr. Murphy’s personal interests include hiking, travel for pleasure, watching sports, and time with my family and friends.

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