Separation, Liminality, Incorporation: reflections on building a new program

SS Retreat

“Foi muito importante para ajudar eles que não tinham puder” said first-year student Manasia Futa at our recent Social Science retreat. “It is is very important to help those who do not have power”. Manasia is from Angola, and a year ago she spoke no English at all. She participated in ALU’s language immersion program, before joining Leadership Core, and a few weeks ago, declared Social Sciences as a major.

Last week, we brought first, second, and third year students together for the first time. We spent a day off campus, with students reflecting on leadership, their values, and the relevance of the skills that they learn in their degree for solving contemporary challenges, and importantly forming cross-cohort friendships that will support them through their degrees and beyond.

The day began with a reflection on what had brought the students to social sciences in the first place. Why choose this major? Why do, as one student put it, “a degree that you are going to have to explain for the rest of your life?”

Working in cross-year groups (1st, 2nd, and 3rd, most of whom did not yet know each other at all), students were astonished to discover how much they had in common. Coming from more than 21 countries (dual nationality 😉 ) and a wide spectrum of religious, socio-economic and political backgrounds, students discovered life-changing moments where something happened that made them pause, take stock, and want to understand the world more deeply, and that ultimately brought them into the hall where we met that day.

As a collective, we explored leadership, knowledge, (“there is still soooooo much I need to learn about Africa!” And the world!”) and the ways we might build a program. Students again divided into groups to address some of the real things we have yet to determine for our program. What should our lab look like? What is the role of the seven commitments (hyperlink), did we leave anything out? Is our ethics process sufficient? How do we balance demands for innovation and tradition in a program like ours, without simply making our students do everything and wearing them out?

Throughout the day, students engaged intently and productively, and generated a fantastic number of very good ideas. In the process, many gained clarity as to the learning they were experiencing. At the end, one said, “talking to the first years, I realized how far I had come. Not that they’re ignorant or anything, it’s just that now I understand the process”. Of the third years, a first year remarked “they’re human after all!”

Suddenly, it feels like we have a community, of elder and younger siblings, working on common principles towards a version of the world that all of us can get behind. As we build an institution from the ground up, this will make all the difference.