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The dance of learning, faith and service

by Gini Norris-Lane

"Matachines" dancers from the Notre Dame Catholic Church perform the Danza de Matachines dance.
“Matachines” dancers from the Notre Dame Catholic Church perform the Danza de Matachines dance.

On a Monday night in November 2015, dancers were swirling around the area outside the main Schreiner University student center as drums beat in the background and students got their faces painted and enjoyed the evening. The sound of the rattles on the dancers’ ankles filled the air as the dancers went into the crowd of students and pulled them into the procession. Soon everyone joined the dance as we celebrated the cultural and religious event known in South Texas as Dia de los Muertos, just one of the cultural events put on by the Changing Global Society office at Schreiner.

Schreiner University in Kerrville, Texas, is a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-affiliated university. Schreiner’s mission is “to prepare students for meaningful work and purposeful lives in a changing global society.”

The question of how to challenge students to think not only about a profession — how to get a job after graduation — but also to think in terms of vocation, of the idea of “calling” and what constitutes a meaningful life, is something many Presbyterian-related colleges are attempting to do.

David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of “The Road to Character,” recently said in a speech to Christian colleges, “You [Christian colleges] have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion and intellect. … Almost no other set of institutions in American society has that, and everyone wants it.”

In the fall of 2014, Schreiner introduced new initiatives centered on the three elements of our mission statement and hired three coordinators to engage students more deeply in what is called the “Schreiner Experience.” It is our hope that the Schreiner Experience gives a scaffolding of sorts — a framework — for us to educate the young people entrusted to us, including Christian students, students from other traditions and students with no espoused faith tradition at all.

The three new initiatives are these:

  • David Reast works in the career development office as coordinator for meaningful work. He designs and implements thoughtful work study experiences, internships, employer site visits and other programs to help students develop career readiness skills and reflect upon what makes work meaningful.
  • Sonja Lind is the coordinator of changing global society, housed in the student services department. She helps faculty and staff develop study-away programs, assists students in study abroad opportunities, and plans cultural events to bring the broader world to the Schreiner campus in Kerrville.
  • Kelsey Penn is coordinator for purposeful lives and volunteer service in the campus ministry department. She oversees a number of initiatives, including volunteer opportunities for students, faculty and staff; service-learning courses taught by faculty; a sophomore learning community; SEARCH (a program focusing on service, leadership development and reflection); and community engagement.
Martha Flores (right) an OLE (Organization for Latin Engagement) member and current Schreiner student has her face painted with sugar skull face paint.
Martha Flores (right) an OLE (Organization for Latin Engagement) member and current Schreiner student has her face painted with sugar skull face paint.

All three work with campus constituents and community partners to create an environment where students are not only academically prepared for life after college, but develop the skills, awareness and ability to be ready to navigate their career choices, to become ethical workers, to be contributing members of their communities and to give attention to the larger world around them.

The question of how to guide students to think about leading meaningful, purposeful lives is part of the Schreiner history and tradition — and also part of a broader trend in higher education. Schreiner was founded in 1923 when Charles Schreiner, a Hill Country farmer, ranger and businessman from no particular faith tradition, partnered with the Presbyterian Church to create Schreiner Institute — which emphasized from the beginning learning, faith and service to society.

Sociologist Tim Clydesdale summarized in his 2015 book “The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation” research involving programs which the Lilly Endowment Inc. funded on 88 religiously-affiliated college campuses to encourage students to think about the idea of vocation and a meaningful life.

A prayer is offered in Spanish at the beginning of the first Dia de los Muertos festivities in 2014.
A prayer is offered in Spanish at the beginning of the first Dia de los Muertos festivities in 2014.

In a 2015 interview with “Inside Higher Education,” Clydesdale reported that students, faculty and staff all reported gains from such programs. The work “requires engaging students in a wide and thoughtful conversation about what matters to them and why, helping them explore these things during their college years, and mentoring them as they translate these deep values and interests into a purposeful life trajectory,” Clydesdale said.

In 2012, under the leadership of president Tim Summerlin, Schreiner began to have more intentional conversations about how to prepare students for life beyond college. And with a grant from NetVUE (Network for Vocational Undergraduate Exploration through the Council of Independent Colleges and the Lilly Foundation), we started having a university-wide conversation with faculty, staff, administrators and students about the questions we should have our students ask and the experiences we want them to have in order to be prepared not only academically, but spiritually and vocationally.

Manuel Rodriguez, professor of Spanish, and his wife Maureen Russo light candles to place on the altar. These candles are symbolic, representing the lighted path for souls trying to find their way to the land of the living.
Manuel Rodriguez, professor of Spanish, and his wife Maureen Russo light candles to place on the altar. These candles are symbolic, representing the lighted path for souls trying to find their way to the land of the living.

Charlie McCormick, the current provost who will become the next Schreiner University president in January of 2017, says what excites him most about the Schreiner Experience is the ways these opportunities help students envision not only who they are, but what they — and even the university itself — can become.

“Through the Meaningful Work professional site visits, students are able to sit down with professionals from various companies, wear their suits, ask good questions, and begin to see themselves as the professionals they want to (and are called) to be,” McCormick said. “Through community engagement and conversations through the Purposeful Lives and Volunteer Service office, students are able to serve the larger community, and the university is at a time in our history where we are also invited to wrestle with how we are called to invest not only in our local community, but also ask ourselves what our global commitment should be.

Gloria Angela Santos, OLE member and current Schreiner student, poses in front of the altar built for the very first celebration of Día de los Muertos in 2014.
Gloria Angela Santos, OLE member and current Schreiner student, poses in front of the altar built for the very first celebration of Día de los Muertos in 2014.

“And through our Changing Global Society initiatives and events, students not only get to experience cultural events brought to life on campus, like being brought into the Dia de los Muertos procession and dance last November, but also receive financial subsidies for travel experiences and courses taught nationally and internationally. So a cultural night with Korean food, dance and games is a gateway for some students to study in South Korea at Hanam University, a fellow Presbyterian-related school. A Taizé service on campus is a glimpse of what a week in Taizé would be.

“I can think of no better image for the Schreiner Experience than of providing students opportunities to join — to join what they learn in the classroom with the opportunities to learn in the world of work, the world of service, and the world of citizenship, and to join that with their world of faith. For it is by joining in the intricate dance between learning, faith and service, that they are educated for life beyond the Schreiner campus.”

Gini Norris-LaneGini Norris-Lane has been the campus minister at Schreiner University for 11 years. She is married to Wes, and together they have two children, Austin and Max.

(Photos: Mackenzie Wade)

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