The Colgate Scene
May 2008

Ringing the bell for service
A message from Vice President and Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson

President and Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson, speaking at a recent brown bag lunch. [Photo by Barrett Brassfield]
I've seen firsthand how one person can make a difference in the lives of others, and I think we all have that obligation.

When I was much younger, the importance of service in my community was a value that wasn't so much preached to me, but modeled for me by my parents and other important adults in my life.

For many years, my father was active in our church and with neighborhood youths. He was heavily involved in Big Brothers/Big Sisters. He always had a little brother who was right around my brother's and my age. The value of service was also modeled for me in school. I attended Catholic school, and we were always encouraged to get involved in the community.

When I was in high school, I applied to tutor underprivileged kids. I grew up in the '60s and '70s, and slogans like "Black is Beautiful" were heard quite often. I decided I needed to do something for "my community." One of the questions on the application was, Why do you want to do this? My answer: Because I want to help underprivileged black children succeed.

So who was the only one in the program assigned a white student to tutor? Me.

To this day, I'm sure that was intentional. The nun who ran the program, Sister Jeannette, wanted me to see that service to community isn't about race, or only helping people in your own group. It is about helping people, period. Even as a teenager, I instantly got her message. There are all kinds of people who need help, my help. That is a bell that continues to ring in my head.

I tutored Patty in math and English, and she and I became great buddies. I can still see her face. We read together. We attended social events together. I remember having to miss the last big party of the program, and Patty was so disappointed. I learned another powerful lesson during that time: the importance of following through on our commitments.

I've seen firsthand how one person can make a difference in the lives of others, and I think we all have that obligation. We all have talents and time that we can contribute toward the betterment of community.

Those experiences were the seeds that developed into my personal philosophy about education. If as individuals we have this obligation, how do we take it from a personal commitment to a communal, societal commitment? Much of the answer lies in educational institutions like Colgate.

While parents have a special role to play in teaching their children the value of civic responsibility and civic engagement, as educators we come into contact with thousands of students. We can make an impact through both the messages that we impart and the opportunities that we create for them.

For me, education is more than just a chance to enrich the mind through specialized knowledge. It is a way to help young people think of themselves in relationship to their communities and in relationship to the larger society. If we don't think about our role as educators in those broad terms, we aren't fulfilling our potential as educational institutions.

I think that's one of the reasons I was so drawn to Colgate.

The Residential Education Program's reliance upon students' out-of-classroom experiences resonated with me, and I couldn't wait to learn more about how Colgate students were learning those same important lessons I'd received. Almost two years after my arrival, I have had the opportunity to help strengthen the program's connection to the university's broader institutional mission. Colgate truly embraces principles that mirror some key points of my philosophy regarding education and its importance in a legitimate democracy:

The power of education lies in its ability to transform. And that transformation extends beyond the individual to families, communities, and a global society.

Education must be inclusive. The challenge of higher education in the 21st century will be to effectively adapt to a new demographic that will require us to continue expanding the boundaries of accessibility. It is our obligation, as an educational institution, to pull in and develop talent from all corners. We cannot afford to let our young people slip through the cracks; we should be preparing as many students as we can to meet the challenges ahead.

The educational process should be holistic. We are not about producing "talking heads." We seek to help students become well-rounded, engaged, and civic-minded citizens. At Colgate, we understand that building communities of which we can be proud is a direct result of how we educate our students.

Service learning opportunities are an important component of our Residential Education Program — connecting students' experiences on many fronts as a way to stimulate academic engagement, impart the skills of leadership, and help change the world. These opportunities allow students to extend their Colgate education for the benefit of communities near and far. In helping others, students put their education into action, and learn about the many communities that exist beyond the "Colgate bubble."

By helping students connect their lives outside of the classroom to the lessons learned in the classroom, we also help them create an identity beyond their major or class year. They learn something of themselves by extending beyond themselves. That extension is the bridge between learning and transformation.

This issue's page 1 story conveys the power and impact of service learning far better than my attempt at describing it — the story provides concrete examples of what students, faculty, and staff can do in furtherance of an educational mission that never loses sight of the common good. My ideal for all Colgate students is that they graduate having as a goal the betterment of whatever community they find themselves in. I want that to be that bell that keeps ringing in their heads.

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