The Examined Life

The Examined Life

March 25, 2013
Sophomores engage in yearlong self-discovery and community-based learning
Spending several days at a hostel in one of Canada’s most impoverished neighborhoods might sound like a hard sell to most college students. But for one group of sophomores, it was part of the draw to apply for a competitive residential community focusing on self-discovery and social change.

The program — designed by Dr. Craig Kocher, University Chaplain — challenges students to ask questions about who they are and how they can do good in the world.

“The most surprising thing is how difficult it has been to struggle with some of these questions,” says Aidan Sullivan, ’15, a business administration and finance major who applied because he wanted to meet people with similar passions.

Sullivan joined 13 other students from different majors and backgrounds in the Living a Life of Consequence Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) community. The group is one of 20 living-learning communities on campus that seek to deepen the educational experience outside the classroom by allowing faculty and students to pursue common interests together.

The community incorporated a full spectrum of educational environments, including studying concepts of self throughout history and across theoretical disciplines; touring the frontlines of need-based social change; and working at least 15 hours with community partners around Richmond. In the spring, the students are synthesizing their experiences by completing and presenting a capstone project applying social change models to their personal experiences.

This fall, Kocher initiated discussions with a course that offered three broad categories of social change — working for, working with, and being with — to help students as they selected a partner site for their community-based learning. The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement helped students choose from projects as varied as early childhood development, teaching English to immigrant populations, and prisoner re-entry support.

“They did a great job of taking what they’re experiencing and bringing that back into the classroom and making connections,” Kocher says. “Some of the students came into the class thinking about their professional lives in one way and now have widened the sense of what one’s professional and personal life can be.”

Over fall break, the group traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, where they stayed in the Downtown Eastside, a roughly 12-block area known for high levels of poverty, drug addiction, and homelessness.

“The hostel we stayed in had everybody from low-income, low-wage workers to people off the streets, and we had a chance to interact with everybody,” Kocher says.

The group toured the area and heard from nonprofits working to address social issues. For students like Sullivan, the yearlong reflections and the Vancouver trip left him wanting more.

“I’ve grappled with different paths that I could take. There’s a huge need there and a need that is neglected by surrounding areas.” Sullivan says. “So I’ll be going back this summer.”

Sullivan will complete a 10-week internship with Mission Possible, a Downtown Eastside nonprofit that offers jobs and career development programming to help the unemployed and homeless populations transition to full-time jobs. He says he wanted to round out the year with additional service and continue grappling with how he can use his talents to help others who have less.

Stories like Sullivan’s help affirm the vision Kocher had when organizing this living-learning community, and they leave him excited as he thinks about the new group next fall.

“I’ve been inspired by the energy and the creativity and enthusiasm with which students approach these issues,” Kocher says. “I’m convinced more than ever that the University has a responsibility to help students ask these big questions.”