In Fall 1999, as a first-semester freshman at ETBU, I was enrolled in THEA 1310 – Introduction to Theatre. As part of that course, there was a requirement that we get several hours of “volunteer” time working in Scarborough Chapel with the Theatre Department as they prepared for their productions. I knew immediately that completing that requirement was going to be a difficult proposition, as I was in pre-season preparations for basketball, I had to keep a 3.5 GPA to keep my academic scholarship (to thus remain in college at all), and I was still driving back to Avinger several nights a week to work at the 5D Cattle Company Steakhouse.
I knew that official basketball practices started on October 15 and if the volunteer hours were not completed by that date, they simply were not going to get done. Of course, nearly everyone else in the class waited until late in the semester to earn their hours.
It is with these circumstances that I became the sole volunteer that worked with ETBU Theatre start-to-finish on their production of R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots, which was the first production of that year.
Throughout that experience I helped with various odd jobs (building sets, inventorying costumes, running errands, etc.) as required. Beyond these experiences, however, I picked up something very valuable.
“Expanding your horizons”
By no means did my parents “shelter” me, but there was only so much worldview a person could have growing up in the 90s with basic cable and dial-up internet in a high school graduating class of 10 people.
My experiences with ETBU Theatre helped me to grow as an individual, simply because I was forced to work together towards common goals with people with whom I otherwise would not have interacted, in a context with which I was not familiar (and in which I was uncomfortable). Remember, because I was planning on playing basketball for ETBU and I knew that it was a long-shot, I spent a disproportionate amount of time preparing for my sport beginning the day I stepped foot on-campus, and as a result much of my time was spent forging relationships with people similar to me in many respects. The theatre experience allowed me to grow relationships outside of my self-imposed circle of athletes, and many of those relationships are still alive today. Additionally, I continue to support ETBU Theatre; there is a poster for Urinetown outside of my office right now.
When I transitioned into a coaching role at ETBU, and again later as a professor, I would see this same pattern in many of our first semester students. It wasn’t that they were actively avoiding others; it was that so much of their early time on campus was with their “thing” that they literally didn’t have time to invest in relationships elsewhere. This is not a phenomenon that is unique to athletics: debate, choir, band, theatre, and other groups that engage students very early in the Fall semester probably see this as well.
Therefore, professors must intentionally take students out of their respective comfort zones, forcing REAL goal-directed social interactions among mixed groups. Additionally, students must be intentional in their pursuit of these connections. This is why the concept behind our Learning and Leading courses for first-semester freshman at ETBU is so important. It is also why things like sports and other campus performances are vital; they create a shared experience that we can all enjoy live, in-person, together.
One cannot understand others’ perspectives without understanding their individual life contexts, and one cannot possibly understand those infinitely complex contexts without real social interaction. These sorts of interactions help students recognize that there are more ways to think about things that what they have always been around, and it is that recognition of other perspectives that allows for the personal growth we want for all of our students.