Warren Wilson College creates roadmap to student success through liberal arts and applied learning

June 30, 2016
Biology professor Alisa Hove, environmental studies major Cora Barber ’17 and biology and Natasha Shipman, biology and environmental crew supervisor, work in the College greenhouse.
Biology professor Alisa Hove, environmental studies major Cora Barber ’17 and Natasha Shipman, biology and environmental crew supervisor, work in the College greenhouse. Photo: Rachel Sexton/Warren Wilson College

How does someone create a roadmap for their life? More importantly, how do they stay on the path once the journey begins? These are questions Warren Wilson College is helping students answer through the liberal arts and a new approach to applied learning.

In his 2013 inaugural address, President Steve Solnick said, “The role of liberal arts colleges should be clear: we are society’s last chance to force people to mix – to encounter, debate and collaborate with people from different backgrounds and beliefs.”

Three years later, Solnick and his team are deepening the College’s learning environment through service- and work-learning and expanding the definition of a liberal arts education. Collectively, Warren Wilson College’s Work Program, Service Program, Career Development Center and advising will now be an integrated division known as applied learning.

“By combining these areas under one vice president, our intention is to continue to strengthen all the aspects of our educational program – strong academics, on-campus work and engagement in the community,” said Solnick. “This collaborative environment will enable students to build a four-year comprehensive, holistic program encompassing work and service assignments, classes and academic concentrations, internships and work shadowing opportunities.”

Cathy Kramer, who was named vice president for applied learning effective July 1, said a Warren Wilson College education is distinct because it centers on the entire experience a student gains through academics, work and service. The Division of Applied Learning is expected to enhance this approach and increase students’ ability to go beyond the classroom and, upon graduation, immediately apply what they have learned to experiences in graduate study, public service or work.

“This application prepares them more effectively for work and participation in their communities after graduation because they have not just ‘learned it,’ they have ‘done it’ as a student,” she said. “Applied learning provides more integrated experiences—service projects connected to courses and work crews, internships bringing together work skills and academic majors, study abroad that includes service and uses work learning, and project-based learning that combines concepts from all three areas, among many other examples.”

Warren Wilson College Dean of Service Cathy Kramer is the 2016 North Carolina Campus Compact Civic Engagement “Sustainer” Professional of the Year. Photo by Chris Polydoroff.
Dean of Service Cathy Kramer becomes vice president of applied learning July 1. Photo: Chris Polydoroff/Warren Wilson College

Each department in the Division of Applied Learning will be led by three longtime College staff members. As of July 1, the Work Program will be headed by Paul Bobbitt, interim associate dean of work; the Center for Community Engagement (CCE), formerly Service Program, will be helmed by Brooke Millsaps, associate dean of community engagement; and the Career Development Center and advising will continue to be directed by Wendy Seligmann, associate dean of advising and career development.

Through applied learning, a student’s Warren Wilson College experience is intentionally mapped out to help create the foundation for their life. “Our students have always had the opportunity to pull these aspects together, and many of them did,” said Kramer. “But we recognized the chance to create more seamless interactions between our programs to help all students more clearly see how they all connect.”

Warren Wilson College adopted its service statement and implemented a service requirement for graduation in 1959. Nearly 60 years later, the component has evolved, and students spend more than 50,000 hours each year engaging with the community and service-learning. The CCE has better than 250 community partners, and those relationships generate over $420,000 in economic impact, largely within the Asheville region.

As the CCE moves into the applied learning division, Millsaps sees an opportunity for further growth.

“I am particularly excited about what this means for our community partnerships,” Millsaps said. “Now we can explore what strategic partnerships with outside organizations and communities look like five years in the future and ask, ‘What do we want to accomplish together?’ We can set our goals and begin to work backward to engage courses, faculty scholarship, athletics teams, work crews and student interns in making those shared goals come to life.”

Warren Wilson College is one of eight federally recognized work colleges. Residential students, who make up 88 percent of the campus population, are required to work on campus for a minimum 10 hours each week. The money earned through on-campus work goes toward the student’s tuition. The Work Program is a visible connection to the College’s founding as the Asheville Farm School, which required students to work as far back as 1894.

Amanda Bates '17, left, sociology and anthropology major and a member of the Archaeology Crew, works at the Berry Site as David Moore, center, professor and crew supervisor, and fellow crew member Michael Thorpe '17, history & political science major, surveys the site.
Amanda Bates ’17, left, sociology and anthropology major and a member of the archaeology work crew, excavates the Berry Site as David Moore, center, archaeology professor and crew supervisor, and fellow crew member Michael Thorpe ’17, second from right, history & political science major, surveys the area. Photo: Kyle McCurry/Warren Wilson College

Bobbitt, a work crew supervisor since 2009, believes his role in the applied learning collaboration is to help enrich the work-learning taking place within the program’s 95 student work crews.

“Since I came to the College, I have been part of many groups and committees, including the Work Learning Task Force,” said Bobbitt. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what the pedagogy in the work environment really is. How do we accentuate it? How do we develop it? How do we get our crew supervisors to a point where they can espouse it? We have the right team in place to help students uncover why they prefer the type of work they’re doing and how it can heighten their education at the College.”

Under Seligmann, the Career Development Center has already become the place where academics, community engagement and work blend. Nearly half of graduating students are using the internship program as a way to fulfill work, academic and service requirements, while also taking advantage of experiential learning opportunities in the U.S. and abroad.

“Warren Wilson College is the answer to the criticisms against liberal arts,” said Seligmann. “Here, every student has applied learning experiences, and through this initiative, those will be more fully integrated into a student’s educational experience.”

Above all, Kramer sees applied learning as an intentional method to help students make the most of their time at Warren Wilson College. “We ask, ‘What do you want your life to look like?’ Then, we give you the pieces to make that happen,” she said. “That’s the value of a Warren Wilson College education.”

For more information, watch the following video from Julia Schmalz of The Chronicle of Higher Education. She spent a week on campus with the Work Program, which is integral to the College’s applied learning philosophy. The program “reflects the college’s belief that students learn not only in the classroom but also in the work environment and through service to the community.”