For the 10 students enrolled in Professor Richard Light’s Field Experience in Higher Education: Advising Campus Leaders course last fall, the assignment was nerve-racking. Time-consuming. Eye-opening. And, also one of the most unique and gratifying experiences they’ve had at HGSE. Light’s new course tasked students with helping Boston’s Emerson College figure out how to expand its liberal arts curriculum.
“Over the past year, it occurred to me that it would be a terrific experience for a group of students to do this work that I have done for years,” Light says. As an expert in higher education, policies, and controversies, Light has received dozens of invitations from colleges to aid in making improvements to campus and curriculum.
With some 30 students interested in Light’s course, it wasn’t as simple as signing up for the class. Light carefully interviewed and selected each student for the class, which was capped at 10 students. “Students committed to way more work than an ordinary class,” Light says. “It was a very demanding experience.”
Students met regularly each week, but also were required to meet outside of class; travel regularly to Emerson for consultation, interviews, and surveys; rehearse and execute a lengthy presentation; and develop a 10-page report as a group. The report given to Emerson’s administrators including President Lee Pelton was well-received.
“You have made visible how we might deepen the integration of liberal learning and our professional disciplines,” Pelton responded. “We intend to move forward with your several recommendations.”
The class provided theoretical background about how different kinds of campuses, from traditional liberal arts colleges to research universities to pre-professional programs, work to integrate liberal arts and sciences into students' overall collegiate experiences. In addition, through assigned readings students learned how different institutions engaged with liberal arts. Working in teams of two or three, the students focused on specific areas to research and develop recommendations for Emerson ranging from campus leadership to advising to student feedback.
For the students – many of whom are enrolled in the Higher Education Program – the added commitment was not an imposition.
“This was very much intensive experience that took a lot of time, but what I appreciated was that Dick didn’t come in with expectations. He really allowed us to function as a committee and, with input and guidance, build a structure to use for the term,” says Ed.M. candidate Robert Swander. “There weren’t arbitrary restrictions placed on us. … We tried to make it the most flexible experience it could be since [we are] each working under a lot of restrictions from work life and personal life.”
For Ed.M. candidate Elizabeth Glatzer, who took three courses this semester as a part-time student while working full-time, felt the class was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. “It is by far, the most unique academic experience I had,” Glatzer says, noting the structure of the course allowed her to invest entirely in the experience.
Of course, working with a real client also helped set the stage for the entire semester.
“We had a real-world client which took [the experience] to another level,” says Ed.M. candidate Michael Goetz, a part-time student who works at the Harvard Divinity School. “Every single one of the 10 students and Dick had their best foot forward all the time.”
The students say that Emerson College was extremely open to their work, and provided the access it did in order to understand the culture of the college and the learning happening throughout the curriculum and campus. Working in five teams, students focused on specific areas faculty, students, advising, course sequencing, and outside perspective.
“[Emerson] really welcomed this experience and treated us like partners,” Goetz says. “Working with them was fantastic. They were so interested in what we were doing and our perspective, which was very heartening.”
Although the course was focused on Emerson, the students say that the experience can easily be applied in all of their careers.
Swander, who works in the marketing department for Harvard Business School’s executive education program, noted that the experience translates, especially for administrators. The collaborative efforts of the course – both with fellow students and also with the institution’s administrators – emphasized how to be sensitive to institutional culture, listen to various stakeholder viewpoints, and also compile a report using data and theory.
As a result, Swander feels more confident. “When going into an institution, whether Harvard, HBS, or another school, I feel I can take on big questions as an administrator or feel like I can be a substantive and valuable contributor to the questions that face an institution,” he says.
Goetz, who has worked in higher education since 2001, says it gave him an appreciation for what Emerson College’s leaders are dealing with. “I’m interested in being a college leader some day and felt I learned a lot in this process. I enjoyed watching their professionalism and expertise,” he says. “This is just another level and I feel very fortunate to be with Dick and peers in this class and to work with Emerson.”
Light plans to offer a similar course with a different campus client in the future.