Back to School?

November 10, 2008

On Saturday I accompanied my older son to a preview event at the nearby University of North Texas. It’s one of the options he’s considering so he wanted to learn about the programs they offer. He filtered all the information through the high school senior’s lens, the one that wonders if there’s an easier degree or a more enjoyable campus. He was interested but not impressed. I heard everything as a person who loves personal development and creative career opportunities so I was excited.

The day started off a little rough because they tried to stir up school spirit in a crowd of high school students who definitely weren’t choosing the school because they’re fans of the football or basketball teams. This school is known for jazz and classical music, for psychology, for its school of education, and for fine arts. I know because it’s my alma mater. The last time they had anything to be excited about in sports might have been when “Mean” Joe Greene played football there in the 60’s. He left such a lasting impression the school now refers to their sports teams as “the mean green.”

The dance team came running out to the center of the coliseum and one of the members tripped and fell. She bounced right back up and the troupe did routines to maybe three or four songs, all which sounded like a variation of the same fight song. A few cheerleaders came out next and did pom pom routines to similar songs. The university dignitary who was there to welcome us also slipped and fell on her way to the stage. Things weren’t going well.

Each speaker implored us to do the wave – which we did, again and again – and bribed the audience with t-shirts launched by the cheerleaders to the rowdiest part of the crowd. Then they threw footballs. One sailed through the opening to the outer concourse, but it was tossed back in with such perfect aim that it smacked a mother who was texting right in the face. My son was convinced the comedy was planned, but I assured him the people were actually doing their best to show school spirit.

Things got a lot better after the introduction. We attended a meeting where the dean of the college of visual arts and design talked about the programs they offer, including studio art, which interests my son. As he described the development of students over the years, finding their areas of talent and building their portfolios, I was enthralled. The goal of the program is not a degree that serves as an entry-point to a high-paying job, but the cultivation of the talent of each person who wants to be an artist or designer. He discussed mentorship and community and collaboration. I wished I wanted to be an artist.

The next presentation was for the humanities section in the huge college of arts and sciences. My son is interested in studying language, but first we got to hear about the performing arts programs, including dance, theater, and musical theater. The professor explained how the process is structured around the development of individual actors, dancers, set designers, and producers. Classes are progressive, but students are encouraged to audition for parts in the many performances from the beginning, and roles are awarded based on ability and being a “good fit.” It sounded very much like an apprenticeship model, bringing individuals along by helping them improve in areas of weakness and build on areas of strength.

When the next presenter talked about foreign language programs, she emphasized that travel abroad is possible and often encouraged. In several programs it is possible to spend a semester or even a full year abroad, paying state university tuition for courses offered at a university in another country. The possibility of traveling and learning and exploring the world and myself tempted me like the sirens’ song.

Then the presenter said it, the thing I might wish she had not said. She works with students who are undecided about their majors and helps them choose a career path that suits them. After her description, I had a thought. Wouldn’t it be great if the people working with undecided students were coaches, not counselors? And I started imagining myself working in an environment of university students eager to find their calling and pursue.

My thoughts expanded from there. I wondered if they had an adult education program, more for learning interesting topics than for pursuing degrees. I remembered that, since the university has a large commuter population, many of the students are older. What would it be like to work with adults returning to finish degrees, or finally pursuing a college degree, or seeking a degree in a new field after working in one career for years?

I remembered that in one response I heard to an “ideal life” exercise a woman said she wanted to live in a college town so she could be involved in the events that go on. It didn’t speak to me when I first read it, but it certainly did while this lady was talking. I imagined setting up programs to help students choose and complete a degree, especially in creative fields like art, humanities, and music. I imagined connecting adults in mid-life to adult education opportunities, and helping shape the adult ed opportunities so they would speak to the interests of the people.

I imagined getting to coach the people who work with undecided students, and the ones who advise students in art and design. I imagined sharing coaching skills with them to help them be more effective with the students. I imagined running groups for creative students who didn’t need the intensity of individual coaching but wanted ongoing support and accountability.

I imagined living with the energy and excitement of the activities that are available on campus, like the many musical performances, planned and impromptu, the theater and dance performances, the displays of art and design, and the guest lectures.

It was a romanticized vision for sure. In their ideal form, universities are hothouses of personal growth and development. They offer all sorts of experiences to expand horizons and open minds. I didn’t really get into that much when I was getting my degrees. I wanted to get finished and get gone. But now that I’m focusing my work on personal development, the university environment is very appealing.

I doubt I could work for a university directly, since they tend to be bureaucratic, cumbersome, and politically driven. Unless I could be part of a pilot program coaching student advisors and groups of students, I wouldn’t even want to be affiliated. But I can see the draw of focusing a coaching practice in a university town and offering services to the student advisors and to groups of students.

A university offers fertile soil for growing a business dedicated to personal development. It gives me a lot to think about.

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey

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