Why Teaching? Why at a Liberal Arts school? These are two questions that I am often asked. I used to give the standard answers. “I enjoy working with the students.” “I didn’t want to have to apply for funding to keep my job.” “A small, liberal arts school allows me to get to know the students.” But more recently those answers have changed.
A year or so ago, I returned to my undergraduate alma mater to celebrate the retirement of a biology faculty member who had been with the school for almost 50 years. As I toured the science facilities—which had been updated and now rival the facilities of many larger research universities—I reflected on where I had come from and how I came to be a biology professor at a small liberal arts school in Iowa.
I was born and raised in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In fact my parents still live in the house they purchased before I was born. My parents valued education and believed it was their job to provide their three children with the opportunity to go to college. Because there were three of us, it was expected that we would attend college in Pennsylvania. At that time, the way to learn about colleges was to go to the guidance counselor’s office or to sift through all of the mailings that came to the house. One of the schools I chose to visit was Lebanon Valley College (LVC), a small, private, liberal arts institution in Annville, PA (central Pennsylvania). LVC had a strong biology program but my reasons for choosing LVC were I liked the campus, the school was neither too big nor too small, and it was far enough from home but not too far from home. That is how I ended up at LVC.
I was a biology major, pre-med my entire four years at LVC. The biology department at LVC was fantastic. The professors had high expectations, held students to these high expectations, and helped the students to reach those expectations. The professors gave me a solid background in the sciences and opportunities to work in a lab. Both the knowledge I gained and the lab experiences I had allowed me to succeed as a scientist. However, during my journey at LVC, I found that there was more to me than being a biology major or a Pre-Med student. From the beginning of my time at LVC, my professors saw something in me that I could not and chose not to see. My professors saw a person who loved to learn, a person who loved to explore, and a person who loved to share information. They saw an educator, a leader, and a communicator. But regardless of what they saw or what they said, I had to find these elements on my own and for myself.
During my time at LVC, I did not understand what the liberal arts meant or what the liberal arts represented. Back then if you had asked me if I valued the liberal arts, I probably would have said I have no idea. Even when I graduated from LVC, I did not realize the impact that my liberal arts education would have on me. It is only now when I reflect on my time at LVC that I can appreciate and value the impact that my liberal arts education had on the achievement of my goals. It was the courses that were required as a part of the liberal arts program and the professors who taught them that made me a better scientist. The writing and speech classes provided the foundation for my scientific communication skills that continued to develop after graduation. It was in these classes that the professors provided constructive feedback which I then incorporated into future assignments. The leadership, language, literature, philosophy, and art courses and professors provided opportunities to develop my ability to analyze, critique, and reflect. The religion courses taught me that without spirituality and God in my life, there was little joy or meaning to what I accomplished. The liberal arts program provided me with skills that were not discipline specific but skills utilized by many academic fields. These courses allowed the person who loved to learn, the person who loved to explore and ask questions, and the person who loved to share information to flourish. These courses taught me to value all experiences as opportunities to learn and to become a better person. Lebanon Valley College, through the people I met and the education I received, put me on the path to finding the elements that form my identity.
After graduation from LVC, I explored. I accepted a position as a research technician in a laboratory where I remained for three years. During that time, I improved my science skills, but I also had the opportunity to use and improve those other abilities I learned at LVC. After three years, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school. I loved asking new questions, performing experiments, and the feeling I had when an experiment worked and provided new information. I also liked working with students. I loved sharing information and guiding students through the process of learning. I applied to graduate school, was accepted, earned my Ph.D, and then completed two postdoctoral fellowships. My graduate advisor and postdoctoral advisors were supportive of me and allowed me to teach in addition to my research. After two successful postdoctoral fellowships, I had to decide where to go next. I chose teaching and I chose Clarke University. I chose teaching and specifically Clarke because I wanted to go back to my roots. I wanted to take the knowledge and skills I had attained and share them. I chose Clarke University because I saw similarities between it and LVC. I chose Clarke University because of its liberal arts heritage and its focus on the students.
Now, 10 years later, I am a guide for a new generation of students at Clarke University. While there are so many differences between my generation and this generation, I still see similarities. I see students eager to come to class so they can learn. I see students excited when they understand a difficult concept. I see students who want to make a difference in this world. I do not know what a student would say if I asked them if they valued their liberal arts education or me as their teacher. My guess is that many of them are just like I was and do not know what the liberal arts represent. Some might even say they do not value the liberal arts or the professors. I can only hope that one day, when the students I teach reflect on their undergraduate careers, they can recognize and appreciate the influence Clarke University, the liberal arts program, and their professors had on them. I know that without my professors and without my liberal arts experience at Lebanon Valley College, I would not be me—the educator, the scientist, the author, the leader, the life-long learner. Nor would I be me—the mother, the wife, the daughter, the sister, the friend, the colleague. Lebanon Valley College and my liberal arts education helped me become the person I am today.