Giving Students the Right Tools
by Aimee Dolaway Olivo ’99
Polish the foundational skills.
Explore a wide variety of perspectives. Delve into your own values and beliefs and those of others. Take action. Build leadership. Suffuse all this with a global focus and you have the ingredients of Trinity’s new curriculum for the College of Arts and Sciences.
The person behind this, the person who worked countless hours with the faculty, who analyzed thousands of data points to determine what Trinity students were learning and how they were learning it, is Trinity’s new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Anne Henderson.
As a young girl in rural South Carolina, Henderson asked her parents ‘ both college professors ‘ to name the best college in America. Their answer: Harvard. Despite knowing little else about the university, Henderson pursued Harvard with a single-minded determination that got her there. At Harvard, Henderson majored in political science with an international affairs focus and earned a place in the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa society.
She went on to earn her doctorate at Yale where she mastered several Eastern European languages and studied the Eastern European countries that, at the time, were trying so hard to form an identity separate from the Soviet Union. Of particular interest to her was the former Yugoslavia which she found to be the most unorthodox of the communist countries.
After the Yugoslavian civil wars, Henderson decided to put her theoretical knowledge to the test and moved to Yugoslavia to work with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. There she helped monitor the first democratic elections in the country and came to realize ‘the complete imperfectness of democracy in action.’ Henderson explains, ‘so many things went wrong and yet the sum total was an election. You realize how the theory of democracy in textbooks is not completely honored in process. Yet, an imperfect result is absolutely better than complete chaos and war. Everything is a work in progress when it comes to democracy.’
Later, as a program officer for the U.S. Institute of Peace, Henderson traveled to conflict zones around the world to facilitate negotiations. Sometimes there was success. Like the time she worked with civil society groups in the Republic of Georgia to persuade the Georgian president, a hold-over from the communist era, to step down. Eventually he stepped down peacefully and Georgia was able to transition to a democracy.
Other times, success was elusive. Armenia and Azerbaijan still haven’t resolved the dispute Henderson worked to negotiate over the small sliver of land known as Nagorno-
Karabakh. And, of course, three groups now on the tips of all our tongues ‘ the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites ‘ still haven’t found common ground.
In 2004, Henderson traveled to Iraq to work with these religious factions in hopes of bringing them together to find commonalities and take part in productive dialogue on the future of Iraq. Henderson explains, ‘It was clear to me that in the post-Saddam Iraq, people were searching for a way to define themselves. Ethnic and religious identity was the easiest way to do that. On an intellectual level, they knew that defining themselves like this would bring them into conflict.’ Henderson and others worked to transcend these religious definitions. The problem was that any other commonalities were, at once, too practical and too abstract. They also depended on the classic prisoner’s dilemma ‘ mutual success was contingent on no one cheating on the bargain. Henderson and her colleagues found that historical differences made it nearly impossible for the factions to trust each other and so the process continuously broke down.
Also while in Iraq, Henderson worked with the Iraqi education system to create a new college curriculum. Previously, the curriculum had been completely ‘ideologically dominated’ by Saddam Hussein, Henderson noted. For example, ‘everything was propaganda. All history was about the greatness of Saddam, the greatness of Iraq, the pure evil of everyone else.’ The problems extended beyond content, though. Henderson was confused when the chair of the computer science program at Baghdad University mentioned that the program was ‘theoretical.’ He went on to explain that the entire program had to be taught on a theoretical basis because they did not have a single working computer for their computer science majors to use!
One aspect of Iraq that thoroughly impressed Henderson, and influenced her future decision to join Trinity, was the determination of the Iraqi women and their strong desire for educational advancement. One positive thing to be said about the Saddam regime was that women were given greater access to education than under previous, more religious regimes in Iraq. Henderson found the Iraqi women to be immensely proud of their education. Even after the U.S. invasion, even as conditions deteriorated in Iraq to the extent that going to class meant a woman was gambling with her life, Iraqi women continued to attend class. They were determined to get an education.
Often Iraqi women would ask Henderson if American women really valued our opportunities as much as we should. The more she thought about that question the more she realized that she had taken her own educational opportunities for granted. She took for granted that if she got into Harvard her parents would pay for it. She took for granted that education was her ‘birthright.’ And yet, she realized that she was speaking from the perspective of a white, middle class woman. It was not the same for every woman in the U.S.
Even as Henderson remained in awe of these Iraqi women, she became increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for peace in Iraq as the security situation continued to deteriorate. After one of her colleagues was kidnapped and murdered, Henderson decided it was time for her to return to academia stateside. One of the things that drew Henderson to Trinity was the idea that women right here in the nation’s capitol have the same thirst for education as those Iraqi women, that women at Trinity are overcoming real obstacles to get an education. Henderson realized, ‘you don’t have to go all the way to Iraq to meet women who struggle to get the education they know will enrich and add meaning to their lives.’
One of Henderson’s first tasks upon arriving at Trinity was preparing for the university’s ten-year Middle States accreditation by organizing the Middle States Self Study. One of the requirements was to demonstrate the learning outcomes of Trinity’s students. Henderson pulled together all the data from different classes to determine what students were learning and how they were learning it. As she analyzed the patterns of students taking classes, she realized that students weren’t going through the Foundations for Leadership curriculum as it was conceptualized. This led to a discussion of the importance of the progression of student learning. She explains, ‘We found that students often needed more direction and structure to help them construct their own academic plan which would take them from the foundations to a progressive mastery of increasingly complex material.’ Henderson sought to create ‘a more directive path that students would follow ‘ and know they were following ‘ which would culminate in the idea that students can take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it in a variety of completely unforeseen circumstances. Our goal,’ she continues, ‘is not necessarily to instill really specific knowledge points into the students. We’re pretty sure that after they graduate, our students are going to need to be intellectually flexible and innovative. We’re trying to make sure they have the skills to encounter a problem and think of a way to address it, to solve or unpack it. This is the heart of what the liberal arts is all about.’
Thus, the new curriculum for Trinity’s College of Arts and Sciences was born.
In the new structure, students begin in their first semester by polishing the foundational academic skills. Next students explore a wide variety of fields within the liberal arts. ‘The hope,’ says Henderson ‘is that after taking courses in a wide variety of disciplines, our students will have an amazing set of tools for asking and answering new questions.’
The third goal takes students deeper into using their knowledge to make informed judgments. Here, they explore their own values and beliefs as well as those of others. Henderson explains, ‘Part of the goal is to help students navigate the difficult dialogues they will encounter later in life.’ She continues, ‘Personally, this is very important to me because of the experiences I’ve had working with people in conflict situations.’
The final two goals of the new curriculum require the students to put their learning into action. An experiential learning experience and leadership component are now required for every College of Arts and Sciences student. Henderson notes, ‘Our goal is for students to really be informed as they are moving around in the world. We want every student to leave here having had some academic, graded experience where they took classroom learning and applied it to the ‘real world’ under the supervision of a professor.’ As for leadership, while Trinity is known for building women leaders, there was nothing in the previous curriculum that explicitly helped build leadership. Now, students will have the academic opportunity to explore what it means to be a leader, the skills and challenges associated with being a leader, the values of a leader and how each student can put their values into action as a leader. Keeping with Trinity’s theme of ‘Education for Global Leadership’ the entire curriculum is infused with a global focus.
As Trinity students explore the perspectives of many different academic disciplines and the values and beliefs of others, as they take action and build leadership, they are preparing to make a difference in their local communities and in the world. In Dean Henderson, they have a strong role model of someone who has already forged such a path.