January 2020: High-Impact Learning Opportunities

For many years, I had a sign in my office that encouraged students to “Go Away!”  My intention was to get young people—many of whom had never left their hometown or their county of birth—to study abroad.  Not surprisingly, “Go Away!” was routinely misinterpreted by many who came to my door…so, I removed the sign and tucked it away in a drawer.  My message to students, though, remained the same; indeed, it has only strengthened in volume and conviction over the years.  21st century college students cannot flourish simply by plopping down in a classroom and doing reasonably well passing tests for four years.  We live in a global economy and interact in an increasingly diverse society.  Students need to leave their comfort zones, leave their campus, leave their home state, and maybe even leave the country.  To learn—to really learn—you have to immerse yourself in the world that awaits outside the campus gates.  At Gardner-Webb University, if we truly want our students to engage God and humanity, then we need to make it increasingly possible for them to, yes, Go Away.

An international immersion experience is only one of many high-impact learning opportunities that we should expand at GWU, but it is one with which I am especially familiar.  As an undergraduate student, I studied literature and history during a summer faculty-led program in London.  As a graduate student, I obtained a Fulbright award that enabled me to spend a year conducting field research in Belgium, France, and Germany for my dissertation.  My first postdoctoral jobs were also overseas, with one year as a visiting researcher at Odense University in Denmark and then a second year as a member of the political science faculty at Denmark’s Aarhus University.  Those international experiences were so transformational for me that, once settled into a faculty position at a US university, I jumped at the opportunity to create study abroad opportunities for a new generation of students.  This I did at Georgia State University by leading the European Union Studies Program, which housed students for a full semester in Strasbourg, France to learn about history, politics, economics, and culture in the EU.  I also initiated an exchange program with the University of Nottingham that gave American students the chance to spend one or two semesters taking a full slate of courses in the United Kingdom.  While Dean of East Carolina University’s College of Arts and Sciences, I devoted great energy to raising the scholarship dollars necessary to allow students the chance to leave Greenville, leave Pitt County, and learn about the world.

Here at Gardner-Webb, I’m proud of everyone who has worked to create study abroad programs and foreign mission trips so that some of our students can graduate with an international experience.  I do believe, though, that we can and should do more.  Think about it…our business students should have every opportunity to learn directly about international finance, cross-cultural negotiations, and the panoply of regulatory practices that impact prosperity here in our own country.  Our students in the health sciences have much to gain through exposure to practices and policies as they exist elsewhere.  The same is true in education…or in divinity…or in the many traditional disciplines of the liberal arts.  Give a student the chance to immerse themselves in a new setting, and they will come back with confidence, with a greater understanding of humanity’s diverse mosaic, with a clearer sense of their place in this world, and with the skills to compete and thrive in their chosen field. 

Of course, going away does not have to entail going to another country.  Internships that take students away from campus and away from their familiar environment can have the same transformative effect.  Domestic field courses or field schools—either run by our own faculty or offered in collaboration with other universities—provide students with invaluable hands-on learning experiences.  Mission work and service learning opportunities are inextricably linked with our institutional identity, and we all know that need exists in abundance almost everywhere you look. 

We should prioritize the steady expansion of high-impact learning opportunities for Gardner-Webb students.  We must help students say yes to such opportunities when they arise by giving them the financial means to participate.  That entails (1) increasing scholarship dollars, (2) increasing corporate sponsorships, and (3) a potential reallocation of some existing institutional funds as an investment in student success.  Alumni, friends, and donors who care about student success will need to step up and help us give Gardner-Webb students greater access to the amazing world of experiences that our peer and competitor institutions routinely grant to large numbers of their students.  

So, Gardner-Webb students, we do want you to Go Away.  Go Away and immerse yourselves in learning experiences that will provide you with unique preparation for work and for life.  But then…and here’s the key part…once you’re done, we want you to come back.  Come back and apply what you’ve learned to the communities that matter so much to us here.  Come back and help lift up your campus, your hometown, your region, and your country.  If you are like me, translating those exceptional learning experiences into local action will be some of the most important—and satisfying—work that you will ever do.

Dr. William M. Downs
President