Adding dimension to the student experience
What does and will make the University of Denver unique?
Haefner boils it down, in part, to a quartet of characteristics he calls the four-dimensional, or 4D, student experience. This provides for intellectual growth, professional development, physical and mental well-being and character exploration. It treats individual students holistically, recognizing that career success, productive citizenship and personal happiness will demand resiliency, capacity for reflection and respect for the perspectives of others.
As Haefner envisions it, the 4D experience will be nurtured at three facilities debuting this fall: the Dimond Family Residential Village, where first-year students will live in community; the Burwell Center for Career Achievement, where everyone from incoming students to graduating seniors will work with career counselors and alumni mentors to formulate life and career plans; and the Community Commons, which Haefner describes this way: “It’s where everyone is going to come and break bread. Everyone. Faculty. Staff. Students. Community members. Trustees.”
Each building will be complemented by programs supporting what Haefner calls “a nexus of intellectual collisions, social collisions, emotional collisions.” Together, the buildings and their programming “are the beginning of the reinvention of the student experience here at the University of Denver.”
“The idea is to be more intentional and use reflection. When a student comes on campus, they have courses, they have a degree program, and then they have these [extracurricular] experiences, but [today], these are ad hoc. They pick and choose. ‘Oh, study abroad; I always wanted to do that. But I didn’t know about undergraduate research opportunities. Let’s do that, too.’ That’s not intentional. Imagine if we were to provide an intentional methodology for students, undergraduate or graduate, to design a pathway through their time here, where they are intentional in these experiences and driven in [these] four dimensions.”
With intentionality in mind, the University launched a number of pilot programs in September, including, on the curricular side, seven first-year 4D-focused seminars, enrolling a total of 100 students. These courses will be evaluated with an eye toward incorporating their most successful attributes into other offerings. On the co-curricular side, the student-affairs, athletics and career-planning staffs have developed initiatives to help students make outside-the-classroom choices that complement their life goals.
“Students learn outside the classroom almost as much as they learn inside the classroom. They learn from each other, formally, when they’re working in groups, but they learn from each other informally by their engagements. The [combination] of co-curricular and curricular experiences make up the teaching to the whole person,” Haefner says.
Optimizing this combination demands a methodology for helping students process their learning. “The key here is to get the student to reflect,” Haefner says, illustrating his point with a study option central to the DU experience. “A student who goes on study abroad is benefiting from the experience, but as [philosopher and educational reformer] John Dewey said, ‘We don’t really learn from the experience; we learn from the reflection on the experience.’ So when [students] come back, it is absolutely critical that they put [their experience] into perspective. It is a complex opportunity, but it is an opportunity that very few universities have taken advantage of.”
Can DU maximize this opportunity? Haefner thinks so.
“I believe that the professionalism of our faculty, when combined with the professionalism of our student-affairs staff, creates a momentum and an outcome that far exceeds the sum of the parts. If we do this intentionally and we really activate the curricular and the co-curricular [opportunities], [if we get] students to reflect, and if we actually certify in some way that they have done this reflecting and benefited in these dimensions, think of the story students will be able to tell when they graduate. Think of the life skills they’ll have with them the rest of their lives.”