The places we learn

If it takes a village to raise a child, then certainly it takes an entire institution to shape a well-rounded college graduate. Bluffton University is such a place. The learning process happens within the classroom and in many other locations where students build the skills they need to be successful personally, professionally and in life. At Bluffton, these are the places we learn.

Learning in buildings and grounds

Many students at Bluffton participate in the Learn and Earn program which places them in a variety of campus jobs. Nearly 100 students a year are placed in jobs at buildings and grounds. Ron Epp, who is in charge of the safety program, as well as making sure the electric and plumbing systems are functioning properly, values the relationships and learning which can develop through the student's jobs.

Ron EppSometimes students tell us they have never picked up a paintbrush or weed whacker before in their life, so the buildings and ground staff work alongside the students when training them, said Epp. Our student workers are acquiring skills that will be useful when they have families and homes of their own.  

Epp is quick to point out that he is not the only one involved with the students, but it is a group effort with the more than 15 staff members at buildings and grounds. "I'm very grateful that I have the privilege  of working with some of the most knowledgeable,  talented and committed individuals."

Along with teaching practical skills, Epp and his colleagues work to teach important values to their  student workers. "Punctuality sets a great first  impression, both now and in the future," said Epp. "We also work with the students to understand the importance of a positive work ethic; that they do the job right and that the quality of the job is important  no matter how mundane the task may seem."

Together, the building and grounds staff makes sure that the students not only get their jobs done, but try to provide an environment where students can learn. An important aspect to Epp is the relationships that  develop. "The staff at buildings and grounds takes the time to listen to students, working towards a mentoring relationship. We don't just focus on work, but we take an interest in students lives, getting to know their goals and dreams."

Learning with an advisor

Dr. George Metz, professor of education and education department chair, meets with many students who visit his office for academic advising sessions. Metz wants to have an impact on every student he interacts with. He does not want to be someone who signs off on a  schedule but an advisor who is available and wants  to help them grow and learn.

George Metz"The role of the advisor is three-fold," said Metz. "First and foremost, effective advisors keep students on track so that they can complete a degree in four years. Through advising, students can also learn why it is important to take specific courses and that they are not just required to fill their schedules. In addition, Bluffton is a place where students and professors can establish relationships and advising can be one of the best ways to do this."

Metz takes time to assess the needs of each student he advises. It is more effective to help a student discover their strengths so they can learn how to reach their potential. Sometimes, while working with a student,  it becomes clear that their preferred major does not fit their personal strengths. In this case, Metz stresses the importance of considering options. "One of the  advantages of Bluffton's size is that professors see students on a regular basis so they can feel more comfortable  having that conversation with a student," said Metz. While this is not an easy conversation, Metz feels that the advisor owes the student realistic advice.

Through the advising process, Metz enjoys watching  students change and learn during their four years. In  particular, as first-year students, students are usually  content getting a schedule filled out. As students continue their college career, they gain confidence, ask questions and make decisions that prepare them for life beyond Bluffton.

Learning in the locker room

As head men's basketball coach at Bluffton for the past 20 seasons, Guy Neal sees himself as a teacher, both on and off the court.

"A collegiate basketball program that is run correctly is a microcosm of life. It is a great classroom to teach many things," said Neal. In the short term, Neal feels that the goal of the basketball program is to make the athletes better players and working with them to be motivated students and positive contributors to the Bluffton community. In the long run, however, the  college Guy Nealbasketball experience helps build the foundation for skills that will help student-athletes for life after Bluffton.

Neal's players must learn to balance a busy academic schedule with practices, games and meetings. It is essential that players organize their time wisely in order to efficiently manage everything that they have to do. Student-athletes must also persevere and keep working when they are tired. This means they must learn to get up and go to class in the morning after a long road trip, just as later in life they will have to get up and go to work when they are tired. Neal also noted that through basketball, his players learn to handle both failure and success.

With each new season, Neal is encouraged that  collegiate athletics can be a rewarding and enriching experience. "I've always felt that student-athletes in essence have a double major in academics and  athletics, and that they will eventually be more  prepared to take on things that will come at them." Neal knows that choosing to play college basketball requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice. It is the process of making a commitment to something, investing time and effort into something and achieving positive results in return. In the end Neal feels, "If you commit and invest yourself, good things will happen; and if a group does that, really great things can happen."

Learning in the president's office

Leadership has always been something that Hannah Rybka from Hinckley, Ohio, tried to explore in her time at Bluffton. As a first-year student, Rybka was inspired by the model of her resident advisor (RA), Mary (Eckert '08) DeArmond. "I was so impressed with the leadership skills that she gained from being involved in campus programs and I remember thinking, I want to be like Mary," said Rybka.

As a senior, Rybka was elected by her peers to the office of Student Senate president. Although she had previous experiences running student organization meetings, she still felt unsure before her first Student Senate meeting earlier this fall. "I was so Hannah Rybkanervous, it was very intimidating," she explains, "Most people in the meeting had been on Senate for a number of years. Here I came, being new to Senate and I was the one who was supposed to lead the meeting. I looked around the room and realized that everyone else knew more than I did," said Rybka.

As Senate president, she is learning that when trying to accomplish goals as a group, it is important to lead with confidence and passion. "It didn't take me long to discover that people are more likely to work hard towards a goal if the person presenting the idea speaks with confidence and a sense of passion for the project," said Rybka.

A unique learning opportunity has been her monthly meetings with President Harder where the two talk about current events on campus. "President Harder is the head of administration; my job is to be the voice of the students," said Rybka. Through her interactions with President Harder, Rybka has felt challenged to take a step back when exploring a situation; to look  at a situation from all angles and to approach it as objectively as possible. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for President Harder," she said.

With one semester complete, Rybka is still learning on the job. When making a decision, she is still trying to determine if her job is to do what the students want  or do what is best for the students. "You can't please  everyone. No matter what I decide or how I run a  meeting, no matter what I do it is impossible for me to please everyone. Instead, I try to find the proper balance."

Learning in and out of the classroom

As a production director, Dr. Melissa Friesen, associate professor of theatre and communication and the Mary Nord Ignat and Joseph Ignat Chair in Theatre, is use to being the one in control. But in a summer theatre workshop, she took on the role of the student. "The experience helped me grow professionally and  re-connect with what my students may be feeling, and it can be slightly scary," said Friesen.

As holder of an endowed chair, Friesen receives special support to enhance her directing and teaching of Bluffton's theatre programs. In the summer of 2009 in Portland, Ore., she attended a week long workshop, Devising Civic Theatre: Performance, Melissa FriesenSocial Justice, Participation and Dialogue that provided Friesen with an opportunity to learn about devised theatre techniques, a format where the script is developed by the performers through drama explorations based on a theme, place or participants   personal stories. 

"As a professor I am usually in the role of facilitator. When I participated in the workshop, I was the learner. I felt both free and vulnerable." On one hand, Friesen enjoyed a role in which she was not expected to have all of the answers and there was room for experimentation. At the same time, it was a challenge to be vulnerable and try new things.

Friesen took what she learned at the workshop  and presented a Friday Colloquium, a semi-weekly gathering of faculty, in December of 2009. Friesen  led her faculty colleagues through a series of drama  activities, specifically focusing on devised theatre  techniques, with the goal of getting people to think through a particular idea or theme. "My hope was for the group to focus on performance as a way of learning."