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A Story of a College Putting the Liberal Arts into Action
By Naomi Shulman
alle Paredes ’21 knew before she even finished high school that she was going to be a doctor.
“I declared a major in biological sciences as early as I could,” she says.
But, oops: Halle “accidentally” took a philosophy class her first year at Conn. Bigger oops: She loved it. And not long after, Halle had to face up to something hard.
“I realized that the hard sciences actually weren’t for me. I panicked that I wouldn’t be able to do anything in health.”
But around the same time, Halle signed up for a new team-taught course in public health offered to students in any major. Before long, she began imagining a new way to approach her interests. Now, she has just embarked on a master’s in philosophy, politics and economics of health at University College London, with an eye toward a career shaping public health policy.
Priyanka Ramchurn ’21 was pretty certain, too. She arrived on campus from Mauritius with an interest in international law. But by the summer of Priyanka’s sophomore year, she had an internship focused on marine conservation in Colombia and found herself in a small fishing village. The locals were poor, but they had a rich asset: the ocean itself.
“The next summer, I landed an internship with the World Bank Blue Economy Group working with their ocean economic team,” she says. So now, rather than focusing on international law, she was taking a deep dive, so to speak, into finance. And environmentalism. And sustainability. And she’s not done; she’s now pursuing a master’s in international economics and finance at Brandeis, with intentions of going into consulting.
Experiences like Halle’s and Priyanka’s may seem like happy accidents, but their stories find their roots in a series of seminal actions taken at Conn starting in 2015. By then, President Katherine Bergeron had settled in after her first year as president, and there was a feeling of campus experimentation in the air. The idea of the liberal arts college had been around for centuries, and Conn had been one of its leading lights for the last 100 years. But 21st-century changes were taking hold—in technology, environmental sustainability, human migration, social justice and much more—and the College decided to challenge itself with the hardest questions, as the liberal arts themselves require.
This included, for the first time in 40 years, rethinking its curriculum. What would make it most relevant to the College’s core mission? To students’ career preparation? To their commitment to advancing justice? To their engagement with national and global challenges? In other words, how could Conn best help students meet their moment—this century?
One result was Connections, the faculty’s dramatic transformation of traditional introductory (“101”) courses that requires students, beginning with their first semester, to connect what they learn across their studies to real-world problems. The Pathways program was built on it, asking students starting sophomore year to pursue an expansive challenge alongside their major: to formulate a meaningful question that cuts across one of a dozen wide-ranging topics—covering everything from peace and conflict to data and society, from media and rhetoric to global capitalism—and study it across their coursework and in off-campus learning, such as study away or summer internships.
It was, in fact, Pathways that helped Halle and Priyanka navigate the surprising directions their interests took. And it all culminates with a senior-year presentation during the new All- College Symposium. Along the way, students have the support of not one adviser, as at most schools, but a team of them—faculty, staff and upperclass students. The dramatic progress in numerous areas over the past six years—in global education, sustainability, and the massive investments in career and new partnerships with New London, among other developments—all flowed from this fresh spirit of intentionality.
Any visitor to campus can see the physical fruits of this plan. Turn one direction and there’s the new Hale Center for Career Development, which is dedicated to connecting purposeful career engagement with students’ liberal arts journeys. Turn another, and there is the waterfront revitalization project, which, when completed, will enable students to make use of the College’s terraced property along the Thames in entirely new ways, from new facilities for recreation, rowing and sailing to even more extensive marine science study in this living laboratory. Turn yet another, and there’s the new Athey Center for Performance and Research, a $24 million project that is transforming Palmer Auditorium into a bustling hub for the arts. And beyond that, there’s Cro, which will soon undergo major renovations designed to create a dramatically reenvisioned center for the campus community.
It’s all happening at once, driven by the educational philosophy that is central to Conn. “The ideal of the liberal arts is not to have a set of discrete disciplinary encounters that you take away like a set of jewels in a box,” says President Bergeron. “It’s actually about discovering the amazing connections between different ways of thinking and doing and being in the world, about experiencing your education in a fully integrated and engaged way. We wanted to try to break down the kind of boundaries that separate ways of thinking, break down the distinction between theory and practice, in order to connect the classroom, the community and the world. And then we wanted to infuse that work with reflection and synthesis.”
Andrea Lanoux, Elizabeth S. Kruidenier ’48 Professor of Slavic Languages and director of the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts (CISLA), knows all about this trajectory. She was on the team that was tasked with reconfiguring the College’s general education requirements. “We did a kind of boot camp,” she says. “What we learned was that a school’s GenEd program needs to represent the best of what your institution already does.” That meant, the faculty found, they should capitalize on the promise of Conn’s interdisciplinary centers to help students connect the dots between fields and get an aerial view of how their education would work in the world after college.
CISLA, for example, began connecting students with opportunities to explore their interests across the globe. “Students have to study a language, go to a country where that language is spoken, do research in that country, and come back and say something smart about it,” says Lanoux. It may seem like a tall order, but thanks to the College’s recent investment in the Walter Commons for Global Studies and Engagement—and especially in its new approach to funded internships both here and overseas—800 students have done it, including Halle and Priyanka. “Studying abroad is kind of like going to college in another country, but doing an internship in another country? Working in the world, in an NGO or business in a language that’s not your native language? That’s a moment of serious growth for students.”
Conn also believes that working effectively in your own community prepares you for work anywhere, including overseas. Because students couldn’t study abroad at the start of the pandemic, Lanoux worked with staff in the Walter Commons, faculty colleagues, and four of the College’s new international partners to design the Global COVID Project.
“We created research teams of students to study the effects of the pandemic on communities around the world—without leaving home,” Lanoux says. “And now we have 46 different students in multiple countries reporting back on the local impacts of COVID across the globe, while at the same time learning how to leverage technology and collaborate effectively on international teams.”
This project isn’t just an engaging way to advance students’ intercultural skills while they are literally stuck at home, either; it’s also a powerful example for students on resilience, flexibility and creativity.
To see how this plays out, consider the path of Koby Giglietti ’21. He came to Conn knowing he wanted to major in environmental studies, “but I felt a little insecure about job opportunities,” he recalls. So he selected a pathway one might not expect: Entrepreneurship, and his animating question dealt with implementing sustainability with business practices.
His answers came by learning as well as by doing. “I volunteered during the pandemic for an organization called Fresh Truck, delivering boxes of groceries to those who were immunocompromised or elderly and couldn’t go to the store,” he says, “and I did an internship with Phood Solutions, whose mission is to reduce food waste via tracking food waste and seeing what service facilities or hospitals, casinos, restaurants, etc., are overproducing, and then reducing it based on what they find.”
It all added up. He’s now working at an environmental consulting agency in Boston in a job he feels perfectly prepared for. “I think back to my education, and I’m surprised when I’m like, oh my gosh, I learned about [this issue] in class.”
Associate Professor of Economics Monika Lopez-Anuarbe points out that the adaptability that Koby showed is alive and well on campus. The College recently approved a minor in finance, which one might expect to find in a business school more easily than a liberal arts college. But take a second look at Koby’s work: It was about sustainability and business practices.
“We don’t believe in an artificial separation between business and liberal arts. Sometimes the areas that need the most change are precisely within finance. You need people not to be what some would call ‘barbaric specialists,’ mere number crunchers,” Lopez-Anuarbe says.
“You need the humanistic mindset that comes from reading poetry and understanding how industry contributes to climate change and social injustice. With a multidisciplinary approach, we provide students with an integrated understanding of how the world works.”
That’s why Conn’s students today are required to take courses in social difference and power, for example. Students, Lopez-Anuarbe says, want to know: What matters? What affects change? How can I be more responsible as a consumer and a global citizen? “Classes about social injustice can’t be limited to the sociology department,” she says. “They have to be part of finance, economics, and science as well, because we all need an expanded toolbox to solve these problems.”
And that’s the other thread connecting Halle, Priyanka and Koby. All three were born at the turn of the 21st century, and by the time they finished college, all three had an ambition to help solve some of the hallmark problems that have already come to define this era. Five years ago, when they were selecting colleges, BLM was a social media hashtag and COVID-19 didn’t exist. But these students have come of age with all of it.
Across the last six years, Conn has changed how it applies what it does best—the liberal arts—to evolve right along with them. It is clear, though, that the College’s momentum is only beginning.