By Dr. Walter Wendler
First in a series of reflections on student life at West Texas A&M University.
The main function of any university is to satisfy students’ aspirations for a rewarding professional and personal life. As university leaders, we recognize that there is no substitute for academic excellence in the various disciplines. None.
However, academic preparation and training alone do not meet the expectations of many students. The college experience is widely seen as preparation for larger, lifelong experiences as engaged citizens. Over the next few weeks, we will cover many of these experiences and explain why they are important for all students. Student experiences outside of the classroom are sometimes referred to as “The Hidden Curriculum” or Texas A&M University’s well-known nickname for these experiences, “The Other Education.” We value these experiences and recognize that for our students they are irreplaceable.
New experiences and the exploration of ideas and perspectives have been and will continue to be part of a university education. Challenge brings growth. We hear this in fitness centers with a simple expression regarding human physiology: “no pain, no gain”.
Engagement is not just a strategy for academic success; actively engaging in studies improves students. Case after case shows that students involved in campus life achieve better academic results. Our West Texas A&M University student-athletes who are busy with academic and athletic pursuits typically have higher GPAs than the general student population. This is not an isolated experience at WT; busy students get more done, and being busy with a purpose is at the heart of student engagement.
This commitment also extends to the workplace. Gallup detailed how academic engagement predicts successful employment in the workplace. In other words, providing students with skills and qualities will allow them to succeed in the workplace and provide them with job opportunities. It must include the possibility of fully realizing the “other education” or extracurricular activities.
The University has often been seen as a monastery in its separation from the day-to-day concerns of life to enable engagement and participation in the skills that will make students effective citizens. Students who see themselves as leaders through leadership experiences and roles are more likely to develop as leaders in work and citizenship. Engaged students have the opportunity at the college to test and hone their leadership skills in a lab-like environment. Skills such as communication, adaptability and teamwork are often the most strongly sought after skills when hiring new employees.
These skills are also good for community leaders in industry and commerce. While a particular class in any discipline helps build problem-solving skills and abilities, a global perspective on problem-solving might be omitted from specific experiences in certain subjects. Communities are changing dramatically. We need to provide students with the opportunity to change so they can adapt to changing communities. This does not mean that students should abandon core values. This is especially relevant to WT, where we hold to the positive values of the Texas Panhandle and want to diligently reinforce those values at our university.
Gallup claims that 70% of variance in team engagement is attributed to leadership. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) rates college graduates as weak in leadership among eight skills they look for in new hires. At WT, we plan to engage leadership abilities as a compelling challenge to bring industry-ready students to leadership. Additionally, the baby boomers who currently lead the nonprofit, business and trade, and other sectors of life are retiring at record rates. As more baby boomers retire and leave leadership positions, changing demographics require young people to be ready to enter the workforce and easily adapt to leadership responsibilities. They must be prepared to lead organizations at all levels.
And finally, student leadership experiences are good for families. Historically, leadership developed naturally at home, according to the Harvard Business Review. Families have an integrated leadership structure, determined in each family uniquely and distinctly. Children learn to follow and grow as leaders. Strong families with strong leaders build strong communities.
In the coming weeks, we will address these and other questions that will help create powerful and productive student life experiences at WT, an institution that has concerns and aspirations for the whole human being. Such engagement leads to engaged citizenship, the ultimate goal of a public university.
Walter V. Wendler is president of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/. Mike Knox is vice president of student engagement and success at West Texas A&M University.