A new study aims to show the value of a Whitman College education

What are the critical ingredients of a Whitman education? How are students’ lives positively transformed by their experiences at our college?

These are questions that we will be exploring over the next four years through a four-year study of students who entered this past fall, the Class of 2016. From the study, we hope to identify the most influential aspects of a Whitman education and reveal the unique value of the learning and developmental experiences our college provides.

In this period of economic uncertainty and escalating concern about college costs, prospective students and their parents want to know how a liberal arts education – and specifically, Whitman’s unique commitment and approach to students’ personal, social and intellectual development – is distinctively different from that of other colleges and universities.

Funded primarily by a $150,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, our study hopes to identify the benefits of our programs as stated in the words and experiences of our students. Selected randomly, 75 first-year students were interviewed shortly after fall orientation about their backgrounds, aspirations and expectations for and about college. Each year we will interview them about their experiences and perceptions of their education at Whitman. Further, we will collect their written work each year and examine how it changes and improves over time.

I cannot think of a group of students better than the Class of 2016 to help us learn much more about the important turning points in and influential aspects of Whitman’s residential liberal arts education. This class is a highly energized group that from the first day of school knew they belonged on our campus.

It’s full of students like Cody Burchfield ’16, who when he passed me on campus early last semester stopped and asked, “Hey George, can we meet?” Cody, who is from Beaverton, Ore., and considering a math-physics major and art minor, wanted to discuss the plans I had for Whitman over his next four years. To my surprise, many in Cody’s class decided the first week of school that they knew me on a first-name basis. I believe this reflects very positively on the relationship Whitman students have with the faculty, the staff and me. We are close. We are a community. And as it turned out, Cody and I met together the very next day and reviewed my vision for Whitman along with his hopes for his education. I enjoyed our time together immensely.

Although the knowledge we gain from students in the Class of 2016 will prove valuable for years to come, exploring and describing our students’ journeys in other ways is equally important. This issue of Whitman Magazine looks at the college experience to date of a small group of students in their first year at Whitman: Emma McCullough-Stearns ’15, Everett Wild ’16, Gillian Friedman ’16, Kevin Gardner ’16, Noah Lee ’16 and Shireen Nori ’16. These students are not part of the study, but we will learn about their experiences in a different way. Each March, Whitman Magazine will share with readers the journeys of these students as they forge relationships with Whitman faculty, staff, students and community members, become engaged in our campus life, and mature into lifelong learners.

This group comes to Whitman from as far away as Saipan, an island paradise located in the Northern Mariana Islands, to just around the corner in Oak Grove, Ore. Like all Whitman students, these students have many and varied interests. Gillian already started a Salsa Dancing Club at Whitman, and Shireen sings in an a cappella group, belongs to a slam poetry group and serves as a member of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Our students choose Whitman for many reasons: the college’s reputation for academic rigor; for the engaged, collaborative environment; and for its programs that build upon Whitman’s unique and inextricable ties to the Northwest. They also come because the members of our faculty are dedicated to teaching, to integrating students into their scholarly work and to guiding and supporting each student as an individual.

You’ve probably heard me discuss how Whitman makes a profound difference in students’ lives. They become curious, thoughtful individuals who develop as much interest in the questions our society faces as they are in discovering the answers. They become global citizens who lead in their professions and communities. They develop skills in thinking and communicating creatively, enabling them to work collaboratively with others who may hold very different views and perspectives.

When we complete our study of the Class of 2016, we will have a much deeper understanding of how the education we provide differentiates Whitman from other schools. Equally important, we will have concrete evidence of the benefits of a Whitman education to share with prospective students and their parents revealing how Whitman helps direct and advance the course of our students’ lives.

Thanks to your support and the support of many generations of Whitman families, alumni and friends, students like Cody Burchfield and those highlighted in this issue of our magazine have a remarkable four years ahead. I look forward to reporting back to you each year on what we learn from them about Whitman and about how we can make our great college even greater.

Sincerely,

George Bridges signature

George S. Bridges