Webster University Implements New Programs Enriching Student Experiences
Many of us fondly remember our university years as a special time in our lives characterised by a combination of access to knowledge, newfound freedom, and a giddy sense that the sky’s the limit. Oh, the joys of youth, epitomising in a nutshell the ups, downs, and zigzags of the leap from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Few episodes in our later lives will be as packed with contradictory feelings, high hopes, cold sweats, and hot parties along with the general understanding that you ought to make the most of it while you can.
Fuelled by fantasy and imagination of an oh so proper Anglo-Saxon university lifestyle—huge, leafy campuses sheltering secret societies and hundredyear- old wisdom beyond stately brick walls; in short, all the stuff of Dead Poets Society—the university experience today comes not only with huge expectations on the part of students, but also with those of their families and, ultimately, society as a whole since the latter increasingly relies on the educational system in general and the university system in particular to prepare its future leaders. That sounds like quite an assignment to achieve in the short span of three, maybe four, years both for the students and the universities they attend.
The extent to which good universities take their responsibility in education is revealed in a conversation with Robert Spencer, Director General of Webster University’s Geneva campus, and Ron Daniel, Webster’s Academic Director. Both gentlemen spoke about the numerous improvements currently being undertaken at Webster in a clearly determined effort to make the university a better institution than it already is. In the fierce competition among academic institutions to attract the best students, universities must offer overall learning experiences that best match the students’ needs. Much like those of university students themselves, Webster’s strategy is a carefully designed plan for improvement; its method of implementation reveals the extent to which both Mr. Spencer and Mr. Daniel view the university’s development as a learning curve parallel to the one experienced by its students.
After a highly positive visit by the university’s US accreditation agency in 2008, the university administration tellingly passed up the opportunity to revel in self-congratulation in favour of focusing on the sole point the accreditation agency raised: were they, as their mission statement claims, really doing enough to “ensure high-quality learning experiences that prepare students for global citizenship and individual excellence”? Webster knew just where to look to up its game and meet the challenge implied—the institution’s general education curriculum. A common feature of American universities, a compulsory general education component has to be incorporated into a student’s course of study regardless of major with the aim of increasing knowledge of a wide variety of topics. Messrs Spencer and Daniel remark that in the US, general education has ended up being a bit of a mix and match, but for Webster it was the perfect opportunity to accomplish the institution’s main mission. Now constituting more than 25% of the total credits needed to complete a degree, the new general education syllabus stands in stark contrast to the traditional American offering by clearly displaying an underlying logic that ultimately serves to achieve the higher purpose of Webster, i.e., nurturing the global citizen of tomorrow.
Being a global citizen implies “a huge ability to deal with change, ambiguity, uncertainty; it also requires a deep understanding of other cultures, languages and traditions,” Spencer and Daniel point out. “We want our students to feel able to accept this ambiguity, novelty, and change without fear” and to do so, they need to be perfectly equipped in terms of specific skills that will help them embrace “the local, the national, and the global”
Broken down into ten courses spread across various areas of knowledge, the general education curriculum acts as a foundation on which the rest of the university education can be built. Regardless of major, competencies such as critical thinking and superior writing skills will always be needed. “It has indeed given us the possibility of infusing a real coherence to our courses of study,” underlines Spencer, which explains why it took almost four years to come up with the new program, carefully constructed to capture the ethos of the institution, its resolute openness towards other cultures, and alternate schools of thought. In their Geneva office, Spencer and Daniel celebrate the fact that the local campus provided an ideal laboratory to put the new Global Citizenship Program to work in a city renowned for its mix of cultures and nationalities, mirrored by the extraordinary diversity of students on the campus grounds. “We are proud of the mix of nationalities here; (multiculturalism) permeates everything we do, the university curriculum, the way of teaching”. Given Webster’s international outlook, it makes sense that the institution chose to gear its Global Citizenship Program toward ensuring “every undergraduate emerges from Webster University with the core competencies required for responsible global citizenship in the 21st century”.
If the Global Citizenship Program is a logical component in the quest for highquality students, Webster puts in place a financial program to ensure that once said students are matriculated, they stay. The university’s scholarships, and work study programs are critical tools in the school’s mission to promote and pursue academic diversity. Awarded to an increasing number of students based on need, financial assistance comes with the prerequisite of being a B student or better. Approximately 20% of Webster’s student body benefits from some form of financial support. The Scholars’ Program, launched a couple of years ago and based solely on merit, awards scholarships to high achievers on campus. It pushes them to more challenging levels of accomplishment through enrolment in a tailor-made program that includes special seminars and an undergraduate thesis, paving the way for advanced university studies at the graduate level. With 12 new students in the program and 18 others recruited in the course of their undergraduate curriculum at Webster, this new venture is set to continue on an upward growth curve.
The figures are indeed telling. From a budget of 25,000 Swiss francs divided among a handful of students back in 1995, approximately one hundred students now benefit from a budget of 1.3 million francs, enabling them to pursue their academic studies with peace of mind.
As some of us may know know from personal experience, peace of mind is not always prevalent in the first years of adulthood. What about those students who struggle with their studies, with adjustments to their new selves and, for some, a new country? Messrs Spencer’s and Daniel’s comprehensive vision for students at their institution also includes awareness of the dangers and pitfalls of the university years. Webster University has in place a Transitions Program intended to provide support— both academic and emotional—to those students who need extra guidance. This helping hand is particularly important for overseas students, some of whom may have trouble mastering English writing skills or simply mastering daily life in Switzerland.
While financial aid can assist in increasing the quality of students attracted to the school, Webster University also takes into consideration the need to keep improving the quality of teachers by revised elevating the research capacity of Webster University faculty members. The facilitation of research is integral to a synergistic circle of excellence nurturing excellence through improved course content and, ultimately, enhancement of the university’s reputation. Webster has therefore hired full-time and part-time faculty members who can dedicate the necessary amount of time to academic research and contribute to various publications and scholarly presentations.
Webster University’s holistic approach to education seems to be working. With an 85% retention rate from last year’s student pool and a largest-ever freshmen class this year, the numbers speak for themselves. With the continual addition of new courses such as the recently introduced Master’s in Media Communication, which offers students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of media production or media theory through study, research, and internships, it looks as if Webster students know where to find academic satisfaction to the fullest degree.
Article by Lauriane Zonco