The Educational Buffet


A Letter from Bill Wright-Swadel, Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Career Center

A liberal arts buffet is an educational meal of choice, depth, range, and integration - a mix of academics, experience, and reflection. However, a plate too full is a bad casserole, not a sumptuous feast.

During the fall semester I shared a tweet that was an appropriately cryptic version of the above statement on the Student Affairs/Career Center website. It was in many ways a summation of the conversation the career staff has with students all the time. “How can they take advantage of the wonderful opportunity that is Duke, while not becoming so immersed in the possibilities that the experience becomes a chaotic mix of too much, done not well enough?”

The Duke curriculum is increasingly filled with interdisciplinary courses and experiential opportunities designed to offer a window into the connections that are the Grand Challenges, demands, and opportunities of the 21st Century. It is a curriculum filled with the most innovative teaching styles offered by a world-class teaching and research faculty. The landscape is replete with integrative opportunities for global learning, service learning, experiential learning, research partnerships, and self-directed study. A potpourri of academic majors, minors, certificates, and focused academic living-learning options - delivered in the academic halls and the residential community - enough to not only fill the days but the nights as well. 

The co-curriculum adds depth of opportunity and skill-building scenarios; students groups, recreation and wellness, the arts, a vibrant cultural and social atmosphere, and more. This is the time for public service, performance, skill building, values clarification, networking, building a board of directors, and community - a time to learn, to do, to research, to develop one’s voice for tomorrow, to work across cultures to discover our commonalities, and certainly to lead. The academic and the co-curricular are each opportunities to develop friends, advisors, mentors, and partners for the journey.

We have the perfect storm. A student body chosen for its diverse interests and abilities; a competitive environment, students with a willingness and drive to take advantage of every opportunity; and a marketplace that demands students acquire both the knowledge and the skills necessary to start fast, deliver excellence, and to grow into leadership roles quickly in order to thrive. Today’s systems undergo continuous change in which a student must meet the demands of today while laying the groundwork for success and leadership in a world that will seem different in most every way tomorrow. No doubt, a daunting challenge: this act of maturing, developing, learning, and achieving in such a caldron of potential. 

The paradox is that it is the student who must slow the pace, build a community of support, exercise choices that will provide a focus to their growth. They must develop a legacy of good work, done well, with a reflective view to understanding the value of the choices they have made, including which areas of interest and skill to continue to pursue, and which to jettison.

There are many guides along the way. Advisors, faculty, peers, and parents; coaches, counselors, tutors, and supervisors--each willing to listen, to recommend, and to reflect with the student about their process and goals. Are they developing a focus, while exploring the diversity of choice?  Are they learning to learn in a range of environments and styles? Will they take an opportunity to grow into a leader?  Will they learn the skills and knowledge they need in order to create the flexibility to be successful, not just at the moment they graduate, but across a dynamic career?

As a parent, it often feels easier to recommend; to tell them what we know to be true. I feel the same way as a career counselor. “Just follow my direction and you will be fine.” “Do what worked for others and it will work for you.” The difficulty is they are not us – as much as we are alike. They need to find their way, learn from mistakes, acquire both comfort and dissonance from their community, and learn to excel as they will and as they need to do. They are after all, on the precipice of independence.

It is the student who learns to be reflective; builds their board of directors; explores and cultivates the intersection of the curriculum and the co-curriculum; learns to articulate why they have done what they have done and how it was designed and accomplished for success; and who does so with a healthy dose of advice who will thrive. It is this woman, this man, who will develop a vision of who they are becoming and learn how to be successful in the ways they define success.

It is this student who dines at the educational buffet and enjoys a sumptuous feast.