Sawa Kurotani, a professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences, spoke recently at the Celebrating Endowment luncheon during Homecoming and Parents' Weekend. Here are her remarks.
When Dean Kendrick Brown and Vice President for Advancement Tamara Josserand asked me to represent the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) by speaking at this luncheon, my first question was, “Why me?” I am not one of the accomplished faculty members who holds an endowed chair. I am not a number-crunching whiz and cannot dazzle you with smart-looking charts and graphs as Kendrick often does. I do not know all of the students in my classroom who have financial need. I am just an ordinary member of the College faculty, who do whatever they can to help students achieve their goals and dreams.
Then I realized that is exactly why I am being asked to speak to you, to help you better understand what your support has truly done for our students.
The mission of the College represents a much needed, yet challenging goal in the complex world in which we live. Take the concept of “personalized education,” for instance. In my introductory anthropology course this semester, 18 students are learning as much from one another as from my instruction, grappling with complicated, and often controversial, issues. The other day we got into a spontaneous debate on “patriarchy.” As we unpacked this controversial concept, in the context of polygyny in a West African community in the 1940s on one hand and our own social reality on the other, our discussion ultimately led to the critique of the workings of modern power. This kind of learning is only possible in a small classroom where we know everyone by name and feel safe enough to share our own ignorance, confusion, or ambivalence.
Outside the classroom, student advising is an equally significant part of my job as a member of the CAS faculty. Truth be told, we academics are not trained educational counselors, which is obvious if you sit in on my advising session. You will see me bumbling around the online advising portal and asking my advisees what is happening in their lives. Even before we exchange a word about the next semester’s schedule, we will get into a lengthy conversation about the student’s sport injuries, recent changes in family life, and even heart-wrenching breakups. Somewhere along the way, I discover how they are developing their long-term goals and dreams, and what we can do to get them a step closer to realizing them. This is certainly not an efficient, quick “in and out” kind of advising; yet, it is just the kind of interaction we pride ourselves on in our close-knit community of learning.
These are not typical ways in which faculty and students interact in today’s higher education environments. I am often struck by how privileged we are at Redlands to be able to engage with one another in such an intimate, human way, especially when our alumni tell us years after graduation that our teaching had a life-altering impact. Take Elliott, who graduated with a sociology/anthropology degree 15 years ago and now teaches social science in high school; or Kayla, who also majored in sociology/anthropology and is now a fledgling business owner. Imagine the impact of highly respected senior scholars who teach and mentor in this personalized fashion, faculty members we were able to attract to our campus thanks to endowed chair positions.
Our students are increasingly diverse in their personal histories, educational backgrounds, and future aspirations. What does it take to nurture them to become “global citizens” in the truest sense of the term? Classroom learning is not quite enough—they need real experiences outside their comfort zone to understand divergent life courses and outlooks, the larger forces at work that create a disparity of opportunities, and the opportunity and responsibility we have with one another as members of the same community—whether local, national, or global.
Among the unique experiential learning opportunities that this University has to offer, study away is of personal importance to me. Born and raised in Japan, I was the first in my family to go overseas when I left to study for a semester in the United States as a college student. This experience was made possible for me only by generous support from my own university. And, 30 years later, I’m still “studying abroad,” so I am being quite literal when I tell my students that study away changes lives. Nearly 50 percent of our College students study away, and this year they will travel to 31 different countries around the world. These opportunities are also made possible through donor support, from travel grants that helped 29 Bulldogs from across the University study in 15 countries last year, to our Salzburg international campus that has provided more than 3,100 students with life-changing experiences since 1960. Imagine how much it will enrich the life of our students and our campus as a whole, when every student has a chance to study away, either on a semester-long program or a May Term travel course.
Over the last 20 years I have taught on this campus, some things about our students have remained the same. For example, when I arrived as a new faculty member, I was struck immediately by how friendly everyone seemed, and I am impressed, more now than ever, with how my students are genuinely good people. I have seen some changes, too. Each year, we are delighted to see the incoming class is more diverse than before. The members of the Class of 2023 represent 24 countries of citizenship, and 39 percent are first-generation college-bound. Fifty-three percent of the current student population are students of color. As they bring unique academic backgrounds and varied life experiences with them, their needs and goals in college have also become more diverse. To fulfill my commitment to support their successes as students and as human beings, I am finding myself continuously rethinking and reworking the way I teach inside and outside the classroom.
We are also keenly aware that the cost of private college education is increasingly prohibitive to ordinary American families. What can we—should we—do to make our personalized education possible to a more diverse range of students? From study away to service learning, our experiential learning offerings are extensive—but we know we can do better, reach further, and help more students, whose financial circumstances limit their chances to engage in once-in-a-life-time opportunities to learn and grow. Ninety percent of our students receive some kind of financial assistance from the University, and the generous support of people in this room has helped us reach this milestone . . . Do we dare hope that, one day, we can honestly say no deserving student is denied access to the best educational opportunities Redlands has to offer for lack of funds?
Sometimes the work of a teacher seems endless—there are always different ways of delivering the material, newer and better books to consider, more effective ways of pushing my students’ thinking. But when I step out of this luncheon, after seeing with my own eyes and feeling in my own heart that you are there with us for this worthy endeavor, it will make it that much easier to face the heap of midterm grading that awaits me.
Thank you for your unwavering support of the University of Redlands, and most importantly, of our students.