From a student’s perspective

Each year, Santa Fe College President Jackson Sasser becomes a student for a day at his college. (Photo: Santa Fe College)

For 16 years I have attended class — not as the president of Santa Fe College, but as a student. How can you lead what you do not know?

Answering that question has become a tradition. Many of the answers change because of the ever-changing nature of education: the needs of students, changes in society, international influences, new developments in knowledge and teaching techniques, and shifting requirements of the economy and transfer institutions.

The process is initiated in the fall at the beginning of the academic year. A date is set in spring semester for me to attend class for an entire day and sometimes into the evening. All faculty are encouraged to extend an invitation to facilitate the fullest range of experiences in the technologies and in the arts and sciences. Central to the experience is the agreement with each faculty member to identify this new visitor at the end of the class. The expectation is to have a full learning experience without any distractions associated with his position.

And attention is given to blending in with the student body — particularly in my clothing choices.

Meeting with students

My intellectual curiosity enables me to attend classes with an open mind. Even if it is a difficult subject, such as physics in the middle of the semester, I enjoy watching the exchange of ideas and transmission of facts and philosophies, sometimes with approaches I might never have considered.

One of the expectations of being introduced at the end of class was that students would be more comfortable approaching me on campus to discuss issues relating to the college. Such visits occur less frequently because students are often engrossed in their smartphones. To help counter the personal isolation resulting from the use of smartphones, I have re-emphasized my “Coffee Chat” program, which was implemented about the same time, and for similar reasons, as “Student for a Day.”

This article comes from the current issue of Community College Journal, the flagship publication of the American Association of Community Colleges.

The program today is named “Chat with the President.” A sign is placed on each of Santa Fe’s six campuses announcing my visit. I learn from students with the expectation of improving instruction and services to students. This time with students also allows for celebrating college commitments and results. Knowing from the outset they are meeting with the president, students often bring specific matters to my attention.

Over the past 16 years, a general set of observations has emerged:

  • Students have abiding respect for the faculty, who from the college’s inception have taught with a mind towards student centeredness. The commitment and ability of the faculty are the core reasons why Santa Fe College won the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence in 2015-2016.
  • There is a fundamental connection between some programs and protecting or saving lives, as illustrated by the health programs and the emergency and law enforcement programs at the college’s Institute of Public Safety. I must say, though, it was prudent on my part not to participate in a class in defensive tactics taught by martial arts professionals. I am sure I would have sustained an injury.
  • Students’ motivation, preparation, engagement and joy is palpable and has been an inspiration.
  • One of the areas we celebrate is the degree to which Santa Fe has committed across every program and service to internationalizing the college. The college community incorporated international aspects, including material about different cultures, geographies, religions, values and political systems regardless of the subject matter. There is a celebration of diversity. A multicultural student center serves the academic and social needs of the college’s 2,000 students from other countries.

A meaningful experience

The 2018 experience as “Student for a Day” was unique. A college faculty senate member recovering from an Achilles operation asked if I would consider being Student for a Day in a wheelchair. I had not had this experience and accepted. As a result, we are making changes to our access points.

Santa Fe honors state and federal regulations regarding disabilities. I learned firsthand about physical access not only to classrooms and restrooms, but something as simple as access to a vending machine. Santa Fe’s central campus was built in 1972, and has undergone continued improvement since then to accommodate students with disabilities.

Santa Fe has preserved its natural environment on rolling hills, which means there are natural inclines to master. I enjoyed the speed of going downhill, but climbing in a non-motorized wheelchair was sobering and instructive.

Particularly, the 2018 learning experience was meaningful in different respects. Gainesville was one of the college towns selected for an invitation by Richard Spencer, a white nationalist whose rally in Virginia a few weeks before had been the scene of violence and death. To me, Spencer’s views are abhorrent.

However, a cornerstone of any good college or university is freedom of expression, sometimes called academic freedom. So as much as I disagreed with Spencer’s assertions, I support his right to speak. Spencer was allowed to speak on the campus of the nearby University of Florida, but was marginalized by the community with relatively little violence.

I found it interesting that a few American students and international students did not want Spencer to speak. I understood and empathized with their sentiment, especially that of a few students who met with me to voraciously and passionately advocate banning Spencer. It was one of the most respectful and thought-provoking teaching opportunities in my time at the college.

It illustrated that the work of higher learning is never finished. There is joy in finding areas of agreement but also in civilly confronting disagreements, including those that are deep-seated and fervent.

My experiences with students demonstrate that leading an institution of higher learning is more effective by having a fuller sense of the students. For all the value derived from written reports and literature, and communications filtered through the organization, personal encounters with students conducted on equal terms and with a minimum of structure yield invaluable insights leading to improvement and success.

About the Author

Jackson Sasser
is president of Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida.