Creating Space for Community Engagement: A Response to President Davis’ Inaugural Speech

By: Benjamin Riddle and Jai-Ryung (Jenny) Lee, CLASS OF 2016 and OPINIONS EDITOR

Courage. Creativity. Compassion. Community. These are the values that set Furman apart, the values that make Furman a wellspring of hope in an ever-changing world. As we celebrated Dr. Davis’ inauguration, in a rousing speech, she challenged us to imagine the legacy that we will shape at Furman and beyond by dedicating our time, talents, and passions to drive positive change in our community. “The world is full of need, and (we) are being equipped to meet challenges. How you go about it is up to you. But my fervent hope for you is that you think beyond yourself,” Davis said.

A liberal arts education is designed for students to dream up ideas and create sustainable solutions for the grand challenges of our times. It empowers students with a global awareness and sense of empathy to understand how human ingenuity can be used to serve people, meet needs, and solve complex problems. Liberal arts universities like Furman play a critical role in innovation and change making by equipping students with the tools and skillsets needed to create solutions that are meaningful and engaging.

From the Makers Club and the FUEL Furman campaign, to SGA and the Belltower Boys, student organizations and clubs are creating space for students to think imaginatively and explore a diversity of ideas and perspectives. The Furman Creative Collaborative (FCC), a student-led movement of creativity and innovation; Pizza & Politics, a casual setting between students and professors to debate political matters over lunch conversations; Creative Writing Club, a newly-founded organization focused on expressing emotions and mutually appreciating each others’ writings are just a few examples of small seeds that are cultivating a more democratic culture on campus.

With this said, if we are to leave a legacy that instills hope and meets the needs of others, we will have to think beyond the gates of Poinsett Highway. It is time for the Furman family to break the mold and ask bold questions about the role of the liberal arts in an age of constant change. How can we put theory into practice by engaging our community in new ways? Apart from internships, research, public scholarship and community service, how exactly are students to move beyond conversations and intellectual maturation to community engagement and action-oriented learning? The answer presents itself in the form of an exciting opportunity: If we are to engage the community in meaningful and innovative ways, we must develop new infrastructure within the university to support our efforts. No matter our major or personal passions, all students should have access to the tools, training, and support needed to pursue their passions and bring their ideas to life—whether by starting creative projects, new ventures, or partnering with an existing organization to make a real-world impact.

Currently, Furman’s CLP programs are one of the only ways student organizations can receive recognition and presence on campus. This is not to say that CLPs are of any lesser value. CLPs are a central component of the Furman experience, engaging students in a spectrum of issues, ideas, and artistic expression from various disciplines and cultures. These events foster a sense of community on campus and create an awareness of multiple views and perspectives on cultural issues, inspiring a life-long pursuit of engaged learning. However, we need to encourage students to move beyond campus to engage with courage and creativity in the community, at every scale. Moving forward, we propose the creation of new avenues for students to pursue their passions and partner with the community to bring ideas to life.

As Rutgers Chancellor Nancy Cantor noted last week, public engagement demands that we get out of our silos and imagine new ways to make a difference in the world. Let us build upon our commitment to scholarship and service by working together to design and deliver innovative solutions for our community’s most pressing problems.

Since its founding in 1826, Furman has equipped doers, thinkers and leaders with tools to understand the past, embrace the present, and create a better future. It is time for Furman to equip its current students with opportunities and motivation to build a better community by taking ideas out of the classroom and transforming them into creative projects. It is time for Furman students to think big and start small, learning to treat our school work like a work in progress that leads to collaboration, action and reflection.

With our strong focus on undergraduate research, faculty-student relationships, and community engagement, this new approach will ensure that Furman stands firm in our identity as a leading liberal arts institution and gives new meaning to Engaged Learning. As Dr. Vaughn Crowe Tipton said in the inauguration Benediction, “Bless us with foolishness to do what others claim cannot be done.” Here is to dreaming big and taking risks that drive positive change.

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