A College That ‘Grows’

Eighteen years of age is, in many ways, an odd time to choose a college. The potential impact of the decision on the course of one’s life and the cost of the investment seem wildly out of proportion to the tools that most of us have at that stage in life with which to make such a momentous decision. We are fortunate in the United States to have an educational system that increasingly accommodates those who wish to access an education later in life, prepare for a change in careers, or even pursue a college degree a class at a time. Furthermore, we know that God’s providential and improvisational care is at work in all of our lives to redeem the impact of decisions that we come to wish we had made differently.

Nevertheless, for thousands of young adults, the college decision confronts them head on from the time they are in junior high. Their mailboxes are filled with colorful brochures advertising places that will transform their lives, make them whole persons, provide them with an “excellent” education, put them on the track for a successful career, and enable them to change the world.  The promises sound all too similar—no matter the philosophy of education or the track record of the alumni.

Conversations with this year’s entering class, initial encounters with prospective students for Fall 2019, and a call yesterday with an alumnus of several decades ago sent me down this corridor of reflection. We know from research that students initially filter colleges by whether they have a particular academic program or major.  A college or university will rarely make even the initial ‘cut’ in the college selection process if it doesn’t have the desired major. This is true even though most students change their major at least once during college, often within the first few weeks. It is true, even though there is overwhelming evidence indicating that choice of a major rarely dictates the choice of a particular career, and even more rarely limits the choice of a career. It is true even though, when students describe  their reason for choosing a particular college, it is much more likely to be about finances, facilities, relationships, or the “feel of the campus.”

So, the process of choosing a college at 18 is complicated, perhaps as much a decision of the heart as of the head. The way we look back over the course of a lifetime on the college we chose is even more complicated.

I am always struck at the Golden Highlander reunions when the graduates of 50 years reflect on Houghton. Many of them express surprise that the college “has grown” as they have grown. The alumni who make this kind of comment see themselves as having grown ‘beyond’ their Houghton experience and are relieved to know that the college has also grown over those years. They apparently assumed that Houghton had stayed in a sort of time warp, exactly as it had been when they left. There is certainly some truth to the notion that Houghton changes with the times – not in its core mission – but in order to mediate that timeless mission into changing circumstances. It is also possible that alumni of 50 years see aspects of Houghton they missed as students because they now have larger eyes.

The implications of these realities for Houghton are profound. We must be a college that meets prospective students where they are at 18. We must connect with their 18-year-old questions and their 18-year-old aspirations for themselves and the world. We must also be a college that offers these students a rich and varied environment of role models, challenges, invitations, and opportunities that compel them to grow beyond where they are at 18 to become the people God created them to be.  Finally, it is to be hoped that we are also a college that offers an educational vision large enough to put graduates on a trajectory of growth over the course of a lifetime.  Houghton, in other words, should be a place and an education that one, in some sense, grows into as well as grows out of.

As you reflect today on your Houghton education, I hope you will find that it met you where you were at 18, offered you a sufficient range of role models and invitations to tell you both something of what you were called to be and what you were not called to be, and has put you on a trajectory of growth and change for a lifetime.

Wherever you are on that journey, may you know God’s grace and peace today.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976