On a recent afternoon, engrossed in budget spreadsheets and pressing e-mails in my office, I stopped to meet with a Whitman student I have come to know; I’ll call him “Tom.” An extremely bright and engaging second-year student, Tom introduced himself to me last year at one of my scheduled office hours for students. Since that first meeting, I have looked forward to his visits. Given Tom’s reflective mind and inquisitive nature, no two visits with him are alike.
On this particular day, Tom had a contemplative look on his face, and I could tell he had something interesting to discuss. Would he want to talk about a college policy? Discuss a current news event? Or would today’s conversation be about a subject in one of his classes? I was anxious to hear what was on his mind.
After a few moments of silence, he leaned in and asked simply, “When was the last time you experienced joy?”
On the surface, it sounded like a straightforward question. But somehow, those eight words caught me completely off guard and left me grappling for a response.
It’s not that I couldn’t think of a recent experience that had brought me joy. In fact, special times with my family, rewarding personal accomplishments, and the extraordinary achievements of friends and colleagues brought many examples to mind. What really took me by surprise was the realization of how few times — if ever — I had been asked by a student to contemplate the idea of joy. Now given the chance to consider it, I was struck by the sheer volume of experiences that bring joy to others and me at Whitman.
Tom’s question and the discussion that ensued gave me a sense of joy because our conversation typified, in so many ways, the routine experiences and exchanges that we cultivate with students at Whitman. While the college constantly strives to provide an extraordinary education in the liberal arts, we also take seriously our responsibility to create an environment that fosters creativity and character in our students. As Tom demonstrated, this creativity and character flourishes when students have the chance to critically examine ideas, assess global events or interrogate their own values through meaningful interactions such as the one we shared in my office that day.
My chat with Tom also led me to reflect on Whitman and take inventory of the rewarding intellectual exchanges that occur between students and faculty, the camaraderie felt among gathering alumni and the significant impact that our graduates continue to have on the world. Each of these gratifies me immensely.
I thank all of you who support Whitman, its faculty, staff and students. On behalf of the entire campus community, I express our deep appreciation for the many ways in which your support sustains our culture of and commitment to joyous learning.
George S. Bridges