The following article appears in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Third + Broadway magazine, scheduled for delivery in early December.
Four short weeks into the new academic year, the transformation can already be felt among the 300 first-year students. Minds are opening. Placement in the world is altering. For the Class of 2022, the most diverse in Transylvania’s history, their emergence from an often homogeneous past to a multi-dimensional present, from what was to what can be, is already reshaping their understanding of each other and themselves.
The new campus theme, “On Civility,” is central to their progress and is woven into the earliest experiences of campus life, including the First-Year Ambassador program and First Engagements.
Through this immersive “crash course” into life and academics at Transylvania, first-year students—whose origins range from Morgantown, Kentucky, to Tirana, Albania—are quickly recognizing that before they can learn and connect with each other, they must first analyze their own thinking. They must jiggle free from the rigor mortis that inhibits their ability to listen, understand and see the humanity in those whose ideas differ from their own.
Overseeing the programs for first-year students are Hannah Piechowski, director of student transitions and parent programming, and Mike LeVan, associate professor of mathematics and director of First Engagements. Piechowski explains how openness and connection are important not only for learning and establishing community, but also for long-term student achievement and retention. This benefits the individual and the institution.
“If we don’t tend to community first and how to engage in that community first,” Piechowski notes, “we’re not helping our students in the transition to college, and we’re struggling in setting the foundation for the rest of the year.”
The process, LeVan explains, is meant to push students to become “better scholars and, hopefully, better people along the way.” For many students, this is their first experience entering a community that expresses different beliefs and ways of thinking. But what may challenge and make people feel uneasy is actually productive, and, as LeVan reminds us, part of learning.
“Learning to hold multiple positions in your thoughts is very important,” says Zoé Strecker, art professor and director of the Creative Intelligence Series and special academic programming. She emphasizes the value of Transy’s role in providing a safe place to hold challenging, complex conversations and to learn from people who are different from you. Transy’s liberal arts tradition already builds empathy and encourages thinking through other perspectives, but expanding to define civility introduces new dimensions.
“We presume an unspoken standard of civility,” Strecker observes, “but in the world it’s not an unspoken standard.”
Professors, student scholars and student life staff planned an approach to the curriculum and co-curricular events that would incorporate an exploration of civility. “Not prescribing civility,” Piechowski carefully noted, “but using civility as a way to talk about transition and newness.”
Early input from two of last year’s First Engagements scholars, Rachel Halliday ’18 and Katie Tucker ’18, pointed out an uneasiness surrounding a word that could represent both respectful interaction and systems of oppression. “They were huge in helping us get to the place of discussion, not stance,” Piechowski adds. As a result, the campus theme became “On Civility,” which welcomes exploration, rather than the declaration, “Civility.”
Halliday, who is serving as the AmeriCorps VISTA for Lexington’s
Pride Community Services Organization during a gap year before medical school, wanted to ensure that the complexities of the word would be addressed, particularly in the context of social justice. “If someone is denying your humanity,” Halliday notes, “how can you be civil to them?” And yet, “that’s what it takes to actually make meaningful change.”
So much of what is learned at Transy, Halliday emphasizes, is about seeing that humanity, understanding the why and asking about the greater context. “I think civility without context can be dangerous. But civility as a tool to effect change can be very powerful as long as that civility is accompanied by understanding and empathy.”
Understanding and respecting differences in culture, ethnicity, geography, gender identity and socio-economic status are integral to the journey that Transy’s Class of 2022 is making together. Their transition to college and a new way of being in the world is the first step toward becoming productive citizens off campus, too. The process is remarkably compelling and unifying for young people from disparate backgrounds.
“Coming from a different continent, where I have interacted with the same type of people my whole life, and then coming to Transy, where it is so diverse,” says Emine Shinjatari ’22 of Tirana, Albania, “I have learned that civility means more than just being nice. It means learning how to interact and connect with others, thoughtfulness, and it encourages effective self-expression,” she discerns. “Civility means so much more than it meant a month ago.”
For Chris Lamar ’22, who grew up in Covington, Kentucky, civility once meant putting up walls between himself and those who espouse contrary opinions. “Now that I’ve come to Transy,” he says, “it’s about agreeing to disagree and still maintaining that relationship. It’s allowing that understanding of a civil disagreement to actually form a closer personal relationship with the person with whom you’re disagreeing.” The approach comes from “an intellectual standpoint,” he says. “I learned to do that here.”
Lamar, a student in his mid-20s who is familiar with the working world, understands the broader implications of what he’s learning. “It’s not just about school,” he acknowledges. “This is preparing you for what life is going to be like as a professional in the real world.”
One of 83 members of the incoming class who participated in the new First-Year Ambassador program, Lamar arrived early on campus for training in leadership, team-building and preparing to serve as a guide for the rest of the class throughout the coming year.
“We were all so different,” he remarks, describing the variety of backgrounds and interests of the participants. “But the way we jelled was incredible.” Ultimately, the ability to build community and understanding is possible, he believes, because of the deeper knowledge individuals gain about each other.
“I think Transy does a really good job of highlighting each individual’s strengths—what every person has to offer,” says Lamar. “Even if we’re different, if there is one person that I really disagree with, but we’re still friends, it’s because I got to see the strengths in that person before what I may have previously viewed as weaknesses. This place is just full of positivity.”
Another first-year ambassador, Justin Hudnall ’22 of tiny Morgantown, Kentucky, recalls a team-building exercise that illustrates how this works. Placed in a canoe with someone from a different background and mindset, Hudnall, who describes growing up amidst like-minded people, paddled off together with MacKenzie Sloan ’22, who came of age in Lexington. They were “amazed,” he explains, “by what they learned from each other about how small towns and big cities worked.” And they talked about a lot of things. “That kind of opens your eyes,” he notes.
Being civil and actually having a discussion with people instead of just arguing with them back and forth to try to get your point across, ultimately makes us better human beings, which, in my opinion, is what a liberal arts college should want to do.”
Justin Hudnall ’22
The focus on civility is important, says Sloan, “because it reminds us to promote kindness and respect to those whose perspectives are different from our own.” It’s a continuous effort.
“Since I’ve been here,” Hudnall reflects, “I’ve just been trying to grow as a person, really, to understand everyone’s point of view. I feel that understanding is the key.”
The broader metaphor of paddling together in a canoe, rather than in intractable opposition, isn’t hard to miss. This is a pursuit that draws on a student’s sense of being curious and courageous, and a willingness to embrace complexity and empathy over simplicity and “my way or the highway.”
During First Engagements, the week of classes and activities to orient the entire Class of 2022, professors and scholars introduce first-year students to the fundamentals of learning, modeling the interaction between faculty and students, academic achievement, and the relationship-building that leads to four years of productive classroom community.
First Engagements scholar Josh Porter ’19, a studio art and art history major, gives an example of one of the classes that incorporated civility into the curriculum. He co-taught “Civility and Disagreement in Discourse” with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jessie Brown, in which students were asked to scrutinize the meaning of civility and incivility.
“They were very advanced thoughts and conversations,” Porter recalls. They eschewed simplistic interpretations of civility to toil over the inherent layers of contradiction, such as civil disobedience. “Following rules is civil,” Porter points out, “but also breaking rules for just reasons can be civil.”
His hope was that members of the Class of 2022 would learn to be comfortable with the idea of uncertainty and ending a class without having all of the questions resolved. He enjoyed the progress they made.
“A lot of them really grew; they realized that they were part of something bigger than themselves,” he recalls. “They were able to recognize that their ideas and their thoughts are just part of the community’s thoughts. And just because they have an idea doesn’t mean it’s the only one or the right one.”
These early experiences that help students form an open, supportive community have significant implications for the entire campus. The Class of 2022 enters the school year equipped for success, familiar with this new way of thinking, and with an advantage of having already begun to wrestle with the complexities of civility. They’re developing important tools for the future.
“We’re training ourselves to take this out from the safe environment and be good at it in places where that isn’t the norm,” Strecker says.
She sees the benefit of nuance and uncertainty over the less fruitful simplicity she sees dominating so many large cultural conversations. “In our setting here we can cultivate complexity and allow it to be a guiding force.” We make the journey together.
“To know that other people are also confused or uncertain or can see more than one way to imagine something—I think that’s useful. That’s what we do best,” Strecker continues. “We’re very social creatures. We need each other to survive difficult things, to make difficult decisions and to move forward.”
Moving through his first semester, Chris Lamar is already seeing Transy’s role and his potential defined. “Here we see the problems in society,” he says, “but are working to fix those problems—to help create people who are in positions to fix those problems.”
The changes are palpable.
“I can feel that transition happening,” says Lamar, “between being not formally educated, having to really work for a living and constantly feeling like I’m spinning my wheels in terms of having an impact on the world around me—versus—feeling like after my four years here I might actually be able to do something for others that’s meaningful.
“It’s been wildly world-changing in four weeks,” he says. “I can’t imagine what four years will be like.”