President R. Owen Williams meets with a First Engagements group in the Beck Center’s Hall of Fame room. Clockwise, from his left, are Evan Sizemore, Alex Rand, Benjamin Overstreet, Erica Noe, and Emily Novak.
First Engagements introduces first-year students to college learning
First-year student Brandon Fain has his sights set on a major drawn from the natural sciences and a career aligned with those interests, but he also plans to take advantage of the liberal education offered at Transylvania that will prepare him to appreciate life from many perspectives.
“Being able to work on scientific problems is important and is what I’m going to spend most of my time studying,” he said. “But at the same time, if I were unable to communicate with other people and understand the way they think and work, it’s unlikely I would ever get in a position to do anything with my abilities.”
That’s one of the reasons Fain felt his participation in Transylvania’s First Engagements program this past September had great value. It fit perfectly with his goal of acquiring a well-rounded education that will allow him to relate to people of many differing interests.
By reading and discussing a common text—this year it was Wendell Berry’s novel A World Lost—first-year students in the First Engagements program acquire an introduction to the kind of rigorous analysis and collaborative learning experience expected at the college level. Just as importantly, they learn from one another how to appreciate the different perspectives each brings to the Transylvania community.
“In our orientation events, people may not be comfortable enough yet to talk about themselves,” said first-year student Emily Novack. “Having this First Engagements experience let us talk about things that aren’t necessarily related to you personally. It was nice to have something academic to kind of kick you off into the new year.”
Fain and Novack were part of an eight-student group whose session was facilitated by President R. Owen Williams and senior Shannon Baldo. Even though the topic was primarily academic and not personal, Williams pointed out how the sessions allowed students to take on the challenge of speaking out in front of a new and unfamiliar audience.
“We want our students to know that education is about taking risks and being willing to think aggressively about the topics under consideration,” Williams said. “They’re not really sure what direction the conversation will go, and they know their thoughts will be judged by a peer group that’s new to them, and that’s a risky endeavor, no question about it. But it’s good training for college. We want them to think critically and boldly.”
The very reflective and subjective nature of A World Lost proved to be a catalyst for a wide-ranging discussion. The book primarily involves the changing perspectives of Andy, a young boy in the novel’s beginning who idolizes a charismatic and impulsive uncle, to the detriment of his relationship with his conservative and responsible father. By novel’s end, the adult views of Andy toward both his father and uncle have undergone substantial change. The book is considered to be heavily autobiographical.
“I found myself wondering whether Berry was looking back and trying to thank his father through this book for his patience and for letting him come around in his own time,” Novack said. “It also made me reflect on who brings the most meaning to a novel, the author or the reader putting his or her interpretation on it. I like the idea that you have to meet somewhere halfway.”
For Fain, the exercise was one more way of initiating his entry into the serious intellectual community that is at the heart of a liberal arts education.
“You read a lot of literature in high school, but you never really have a conversation between people of equal interest and concern about it,” he said.
“Literature develops the mind to think about things in a different way. I feel like now at Transylvania I can go back to the dorm and talk about something we brought up in class and have my thoughts taken seriously.”
After experiencing First Engagements for the first time, Williams came away convinced it’s a valuable program.
“We presented them with a reading of a type they can expect to see many of, and we’re engaging them at a high level of discussion,” he said. “They learn to be flexible, to think extemporaneously, and to articulate their thoughts in a brief and succinct way. All of that makes you part of a bigger discussion that is a college education.”