Patricia A. Whitely, Vice President for Student Affairs, University of Miami
February 28, 2017
In my last semester of college at St. John’s University in New York, I was so fortunate to enroll in a capstone course entitled “Theological Reflection.” It was there I worked with my life-long mentor, a theology faculty member, and was able to spend a semester reflecting on my student experiences. This intentional space for me to think, ponder, and process reinforced the importance of a continued commitment to ministry and community service that has lasted beyond my undergraduate experience.
The seminar was, indeed, a capstone experience and framed many life lessons for me. In a senior year of transition and personal growth, my instructor and mentor truly fostered a space of trust and confidentiality where students shared their dreams and fears with one another in the context of their service to St. John’s Community.
Thus, in 1997 when I was appointed the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Miami, I immediately decided that I would do all I could to replicate my “theological reflection” in a modified format for the University of Miami. I would possess and foster the credibility and trust to be the instructor; and this would be a seminar for undergraduate students in their senior year and last semester, just as I had been, who contributed to our community as student leaders. These students would join me for “Senior Reflections.”
The seminar was offered as a non-credit, 90 minute a session experience held over the seminar of 5 Wednesdays nights in the month of February, and into March, through our Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development. Now in year 20, “Senior Reflections” has been a huge success year in and year out. I facilitate in the evenings with the intention of ending my day with some time to think and remember how important and valuable our work is, but also to provide students a break between the rigors of the day before they often go on to complete homework and assignments.
Each year I think students have had enough that its status as a non-credit course would defer interest, but, like clockwork, I get questions about it when spring registration comes around. Typically, between 15 and 18 student leaders enroll each year and, occasionally, other staff members have facilitated a section of 15 students, as well.
The format for this seminar is rather simple – students are asked to commit to being present for all 5 evenings and, throughout our meetings, each student is required to present to the class a reflection paper. The paper measures 3 to 5 pages in length covering any aspect of their University of Miami experience as simple as a chronological account of their overall student experience or a reflection on one impactful experience. Each student is expected to present their paper to the class by reading aloud and providing a copy for fellow classmates. The group of students then provides feedback to help each other connect certain insights or reflections based on what is shared.
While this format sounds oversimplified, I have been continually surprised by the depth of experience and vulnerability students display when reminiscing and evaluating their UM experience. It can easily be said that students self-select into the seminar, since it is such a small population that is traditionally extremely engaged. Still, each year students provide feedback that “Senior Reflections” was special and served to help them a great deal as they prepare for their graduation and post-college life. I have found that students enjoy and revel in interacting with the Vice President outside of an office or a program. They appreciate the intentional opportunity to reflect and think critically about their experiences. More so, they appreciate the trust and wisdom that is shared collectively between each other and me.
It is truly amazing that despite all the technological advances, the same format that was successful in both 1980 and 1997 works in 2017. It is even more fascinating that through simple face-to-face communication students are content, even elated, to reflect on their efforts, time, and service to the community. This “senior reflection” makes an incredible impact on our current seniors and soon to be UM graduates.
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