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General education curriculum now stands on “Common Ground”

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The view out the window on the ride from the airport to downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, changed Danica Cox’s life. Carrie Schulz realized the value of collaboration when she and another student helped each other find what they needed for individual research projects. Austin Smith and Caleb Regehr discovered that respectful dialogue might not change minds but it certainly opens them.

What the experiences of these three Bethel College students and one 2011 graduate had in common was that all were part of fulfilling Bethel general education requirements. Starting with the 2011-12 school year, six specific aspects have been gathered under the name Common Ground.

Last January, Cox chose to take “Seminar in Cross-Cultural Learning: Haiti” because, she says, she had never been outside the United States and thought this would be a good chance to go. After visiting several Kansas-based aid organizations, the class traveled to the Dominican Republic and Haiti to see where the aid actually went.

The course was timed for a year after an earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince in January 2010 and almost a year after Bethel students and the community spent a day with Numana, Inc. (based in El Dorado) packaging meals to send to Haiti.

Cox, now a senior in Bethel’s nursing program, also needed to fulfill the cross-cultural learning (CCL) requirement in the general education curriculum. What turned the experience into more than checking an item off a list, though, was “stepping outside the airport and seeing the reality,” she says.

“There were tent cities everywhere, and piles of trash. I realized: ‘I’m not just on vacation here.’ The course wasn’t nursing-based, but I started to pay attention. I started thinking about what a nursing-based trip to Haiti might look like.”

Cox didn’t forget the idea once she was back at Bethel. She made a presentation to her fellow students in the junior nursing class last spring and, when she asked how many would be interested in going on a nursing service trip to Haiti, every hand in the room went up.

Cox returned to Haiti this past summer. With her were Bethel graduate Jennifer Koontz, a Newton physician who did medical work in Haiti soon after the earthquake; Payton Walker, a Bethel student from Cox’s hometown of Weskan who is also in the nursing program; and Koontz’s sister Regan Scott, a pre-medical student at the University of Kansas.

They went to do on-the-ground planning for more medical trips to Haiti, including one Cox is organizing that is set to happen during Bethel’s spring break next March.

“Students, by choosing to come to Bethel, have chosen to get a college education at a place that sees community as integral to learning,” says Brad Born, vice president for academic affairs. “At Bethel, students will surely get excellent training in their majors and preparation for a career – and that will happen in a nurturing community that supports individual growth.

“One place that commitment to personal and community growth finds expression is our core academic program, what we call Common Ground, our one-of-a-kind shared educational experience. The challenge for us as teachers and administrators is to ensure that students, when they leave Bethel, will feel like they have had a college experience, not just been trained.”

Nathan Bartel, associate professor of literary studies, has been part of the Common Ground planning committee over the past year. He notes that the six areas – College Issues Colloquy (CIC) for freshmen and Basic Issues of Faith and Life (BIFL) for seniors; convocation; the CCL and the peace, justice and conflict studies (PJC) requirements that can be fulfilled through a variety of courses both on and off campus; and the research project or internship usually done sometime in the senior year – have not changed radically from the past few years.

“The program is in place,” he says, “and that foundation is what makes a Bethel education different from one a student would get anywhere else.”

Cox, Regehr, Schulz and Smith, along with junior Ariane Bergen and sophomore Wes Goodrich, told brief stories in the opening convocation of Bethel’s school year to illustrate their personal experience in the six areas – CCL, BIFL, research, PJC, convocation and CIC, respectively.

Regehr and Smith both recalled the “debates and discussions” that were an important part of their BIFL and PJC classes. These centered on “current, large issues in this country,” said Smith. “It didn’t change what I believed, but it gave me a chance to hear other students’ views and to leave the class with a more open mind.”

What stood out to him, said Regehr, was “respectful and meaningful conversations among people who didn’t believe the same thing at all” – on a spectrum from committed Christians to avowed atheists.

Schultz told of working on her research over the summer in Bethel labs and being unable to find a piece of equipment she needed. She and another student doing research, Louise Zurkee, worked together testing the equipment until they found something that functioned for each of them.

“It was a reminder of the importance of collaboration,” she said. “Remember that even in individual research, you have the support and help of other students and faculty.”

“My trip to Haiti was life-changing,” said Cox. “I began to think seriously about medical mission. It gave me a glimpse into what I want to do with my future.”

Last April when Common Ground was formally introduced to the student body in convocation, Bartel asked Robert Kreider, Bethel professor emeritus of peace studies, to reflect on what he envisioned in the idea of such a curriculum.

“In a world of cell phones, laptops, BlackBerrys, iPods, Facebook, video games – a world of virtual reality – I sense Common Ground reflects a yearning for a groundedness,” Kreider said, “a reality we can touch, feel, smell, hear, an earthy place with texture, fabric, real people and three dimensions.

“Liberal arts at its best [means] respectful listening, probing, disagreeing, affirming – a community of learners,” he continued. “In this, you embody the art and grace of asking thoughtful, penetrating questions, which is perhaps more important than attempting answers.”

Following the student stories in this year’s first convocation, Born said, “Today we launch a new academic year, and in very real, tangible ways, we will all share this space called Bethel as our common ground. Make it yours. Make it good. Make it a nurturing, challenging, life-giving place.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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