Sharon D. Herzberger
The Rock, Fall 2006
When asked how he became a college professor, my husband David is fond of recalling the time when he and a dozen other students traveled with a very, very patient instructor from Pittsburgh to Oaxaca, Mexico for four weeks of study. For a young person from a steel-mill town in western Pennsylvania, the opportunity to experience another culture, speak a different language, eat new foods, and travel with others changed his perspective and opened doors to a new world. And, he came back convinced that he wanted to teach Spanish language and literature.
I had such a determinative experience in my youth as well. Having taken many courses in psychology, including all-important classes in statistics and research design, I was invited to serve as a research assistant for one of my professors, a social psychologist. As I participated first-hand in the exercise of seeing how a compelling question is parsed into a topic for study, how data are gathered and analyzed, how hypotheses are subjected to statistical testing, and how one study's results become fodder for the next study's hypotheses, I truly began to understand what it meant to be a research psychologist and I knew what I wanted to do for my life's work, so I went to graduate school to become one.
Praxis, as we at Whittier term the deliberate application of classroom instruction to events and experiences far beyond the classroom, has long been known to solidify "book learning," and it has so many other defining consequences. It tests career interests, builds social and professional skill, and leads to both questioning and affirming one's knowledge base.
Praxis has evolved into a fine art these days on this campus, with students having myriad ways to link coursework to the world outside the classroom. Some students experience its benefits while remaining close to campus: performing community service at the Boys & Girls Club in town; collecting specimens for a biology assignment in the hills beside the campus; interning at banks, hospitals, or newspapers in Whittier or Los Angeles; or—as I did—doing research with a professor in a neighborhood school.
Others go great distances. Many of you have told me how much a study abroad opportunity changed your life. You talked about opening yourself up to new experiences, overcoming fears of being far away from home, bonding with fellow travelers and new friends alike, and developing a confidence and an independence that remain to this day.
As it did for my husband, even a relatively short trip to a distant land can do wonders, and current Whittier students enjoy an array of options for brief international visits as part of courses offered during the January Interim Session (or "Jan Term," as students refer to it). Today, Poets may roam through Rome's stunning architecture with art professor Ria O'Foghludha, meet with heads of multinational corporations in Mexico and Argentina with business professor Dan Duran, or witness first-hand the history-making election of Chile's first female president, as political science professor Deborah Norden's students did last January. In every case and for whatever length of time, when complemented and propelled by a program of instruction and undertaken with specific aims, studying in another country is unlike any tourist adventure.
Poets like to quote our very own poet, John Greenleaf Whittie. Pardon me, then, for quoting another famous poet, T.S. Eliot: "We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time." Whittier's commitment to praxis is the embodiment of this exploration. Fortunately, generations of Whittier students have encountered faculty who cultivated and nourished these experiences, through foundational work in their classrooms and a determination that students make connections outside their classroom walls.