Friday, August 27, 2010

Paradigm Shift

When I arrived on campus this semester I noticed a marked difference in the way I thought about the university compared to when I first arrived. As a freshman, and even as a sophomore, I'd think of the university as a separate entity from me—an institution that runs by the grace of other people, with programs designed and run by other people, and a culture set by other people. I'd evaluate the university as an outsider would: What are U of A kids like? Are the clubs run well? Do they offer fun programs and activities?

Now that I'm a junior, neck-deep in activities and programs, I realized that I'm no longer on the outside looking in. The incoming freshman class must be evaluating the university the same way I did (What are U of A kids like? Are the clubs run well?...), but now I realize that whom they're judging is really us, the upperclassmen. The questions I used to ask of others are now directed at me—What are we like? Do we run our clubs well? Do we come up with new, fun, and innovative programs and activities?—because in your junior year you realize that there's no one else who make the university run but ourselves. Our culture is the university's culture. Our brains are the university's brains. Our drive is the university's drive.

Here's an example of what I mean. Currently the International Studies program offers a colloquium series on various regions of the world. It's an innovative idea, most of all because the colloquia are taught and designed by undergraduate students who have visited the regions they discuss. As a freshman or sophomore, I would have thought it was the university who was giving the opportunity, and students were simply receiving the benefits. However, when I learned that the colloquium was actually the brainchild of a student here at the U of A, I saw the student-university relation in a broader light: The university may provide opportunities to students, but students can also provide opportunities to the university. The plethora of programs and activities that we have exist because of someone, and continue to exist because someone is working to maintain them.

Every part of the university is supported by the students that form it. On a more day-to-day basis, take for example the tutoring center. If I were a student who came for help and had a bad experience, I would think that the university had a bad tutoring center. I'd tend to interpret the faults of individuals as the faults of the university. But since I work at the tutoring center, my thinking goes the other way. The quality of the university's tutoring center becomes partly my responsibility when I realize that students anxiously waiting for help at the tutoring center are relying on meto do a good job.

I think this personal shift in thinking also represents a broader sociological principle. Although we like to think of institutions as formal, abstract concepts, when you get into the details, as in this example, you realize that everything about an institution remits back to the people who form it. Some people are, of course, more involved than others, and that seems to influence the degree to which you identify yourself with the institution. But everyone plays a role, whether they realize it or not; and perhaps the bigger the stake that everyone has, the more successful the institution will be.

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