Campus Culture: The Practice of Community
St. Olaf is committed to the thoughtfulness of the liberal arts, and faithfulness to religious traditions. The college is also committed to the cultivation of community. We are mindful of the ways that the extracurricular life of students complements the life of the classroom, and vice versa. The campus culture, therefore, is an essential part of a St. Olaf education, since the values that govern campus life are interwoven with the values that imbue our liberal artistry and religious character. At its best, campus life is thoughtful. At its best, it is spirited as well as spiritual. By living in close proximity with 2500 other young adults, our students take part in a form of experiential education where they are the primary teachers. St. Olaf's campus life is guided by the college, but ultimately it is determined by the students, who each year teach each other--in hundreds of different ways--how to be Oles and responsible adults. This coming of age in community is an essential aim of St. Olaf College.
With all the emphasis on academics these days, it's easy to forget that college education extends beyond the classroom. Students know better; the college staff knows better too. While students and faculty collaborate in fulfilling the college's academic mission, students and staff generally carry out the extra-curricular mission of the college. The college support staff--including the people in the Dean of Student's office, in counseling, in housing and residential life, in intercollegiate athletics, on the grounds crew, in the Academic Computing Center, in the Library, and in all of the departmental offices--show their thoughtfulness by freeing students to enhance their learning in life experience. St. Olaf's community is sometimes a family affair, with generations from the same family serving students on the faculty, in the administration, in the food service, or on the custodial staff. By informal conversations, by sharing work with student assistants, by taking pride in the quality of their work, these staff members teach students valuable lessons about the varieties of vocation and service.
The goal of this collaborative campus culture is to create a trust community, which might serve as a model for community-building in the wider American culture. One of the major issues in American life in the late twentieth century is the erosion of community. Sociologists like Harvard's Robert Putnam decry the loss of "social capital," as American individualism, business, and busyness erode the mediating civic institutions that have historically held communities together. In our contemporary "time bind," Americans often neglect the practices of community--neighborhood gatherings, coffee klatches, celebrations, volunteer work, etc.--whose collateral conversations create the trust that makes cooperative endeavor possible. In such a time, a college that is conscious and conscientious about community can teach students (and the culture) much-needed lessons by offering models of community for the so-called "real world."
St. Olaf 's mission, therefore, includes thoughtful stewardship of campus and its resources, and of the special (some would say peculiar) culture that has developed here since 1874. It includes not just academic aims, but ecological and social goals, the conscientious and deliberate application of thoughtfulness to the matter of why we are who we are where we are. In an age of individualism, distraction, and fragmentation, this college is intentional about the cultivation of community.
The Campus Environment
St. Olaf College is people in place. Although we send students all over the world, the college isn't going offshore. You can get a college degree by mail, or these days, even over the internet. But such an education doesn't ground you in a real place, doesn't show you any examples--good or bad--of what an intellectual community might actually look like. St. Olaf is grounded (literally) on a hill called Manitou Heights, and that special place affects and reflects our commitments as an academic community. Our rootedness in Northfield also has implications for our mission, even though we haven't often considered them explicitly in the past. But as citizens of Northfield, we plan to continue collaborative relationships with the city and with Carleton College, both for reasons of efficiency and for reasons of neighborliness.
The campus itself is a part of the informal curriculum of the college; the care of the campus, therefore, is part of our mission. The campus is the main way that we care for the earth. We think globally and act locally, and the campus is the locality where we act. A global perspective includes interactions with other people in other places, but it also involves care for the land and the neighborhood in our own place.
When Harald Thorson purchased 30 acres of land on a hill west of Northfield in 1876, St. Olaf began its relationship to its current campus. One of the highest points in Rice County, the hill was densely wooded, and offered a fine prospect of the surrounding area. The college contracted for the construction of the Main Building (now Old Main) in June 1877, and classes began there in the Fall of 1878, although the formal dedication waited until Founder's Day on November sixth.
From the very beginning, the idea of stewardship governed St. Olaf's relationship with the land. When the college moved from downtown Northfield to Manitou Heights, the builders brought the lumber from the East Side buildings to construct the new Ladies Hall. As early as the 1880s, the college planted several hundred evergreens in a valley that had been stripped of its maples by a previous owner. Although Anna Mohn, the President's wife, thought that the trees would make the terrain look more like Norway, she earnestly hoped that it would be called the Vale of Tawasentha, after Longfellow's epic poem "Hiawatha." Despite her desire, the name that has lasted is Norway Valley.
For much of the twentieth century, John Berntsen was the chief steward of the St. Olaf campus, serving St. Olaf for 52 years, most of it as Superintendent of Grounds and Buildings. "I want to make St. Olaf so nice," Berntsen said, "[that] no student will ever have to apologize for it." Students can still see Berntsen's work on Thorson hill, where crews hauled in tons of dirt and fertilizer, and over 600 trees, to transform the sandy incline into a forested hill. They can see an example of his experimental curiosity in the unusual gingko tree to the south of Holland Hall. Any day of the year, visitors can see the continuing work of the dedicated people on the grounds crew who are colloquially called "the Green Army".
The college used to have a dairy farm on campus. It disappeared during the Fifties, when we added Boe Chapel and a new Student Center on the site of the old barn. St. Olaf maintained its own creamery, and oldtimers can still remember visiting the Physical Plant for ice cream on sunny afternoons, or seeing faculty heading home from the Hill with gallons of milk. We think we've lost something by abstracting our relationship to agriculture and our food sources, and we're working to regain a better sense of our working relationship with the natural world. Northfield commends itself as the town of "cows, colleges and contentment," and it might be good for the colleges to see the cows now and again.
Currently, the St. Olaf campus consists of 1000 acres, including a 300-acre academic core arranged roughly in concentric circles. The central "Green" is a wooded lawn surrounded by several academic buildings, and the connected complex that includes Rolvaag Library, Boe Chapel and Buntrock Commons. It's a pedestrian environment, with sidewalks and paths crisscrossing the green. A single ring road surrounds this central space. The second circle of buildings is the residence halls, arranged in two clusters on either side of the academic core. The third circle of the college consists of facilities below the brow of the hill, including the Skoglund Athletic Center and the athletic fields.
Although the campus is a beautiful landscape, it's also a cultural landscape that hasn't always nurtured wildlife or a lot of natural diversity. In 1985, therefore, the college committed to restore some of its agricultural lands to native species on 700 acres adjacent to the academic campus. Since that time, student and faculty volunteers have planted more than 20,000 trees and seedlings to re-establish an area of Big Woods that were here 150 years ago. We have established four different prairie areas, with five species of native grasses and a wide variety of wildflowers. Five restored wetlands invite waterfowl like ruddy ducks and tundra swans to become a part of the natural community. A 44-acre parcel of farmland has been converted from conventional agriculture to a more sustainable system. All of these restorations offer opportunities for student research and observation, as well as natural areas for jogging, walking, and quiet contemplation. In addition, they help to counterbalance the carbon dioxide we exhale into the atmosphere by our burning of fossil fuels. By holding almost all the stormwater that falls on the campus, these plantings also enhance the quality of aquifer recharge in the Cannon River watershed. And they begin to suggest a way of living responsibly in creation.
Architecture as Pedagogy
Because they shape our activity and interactions, the campus buildings also constitute an important element of our mission. Buildings are a way of structuring human life in the world. Architecture is the art of shaping space for particular purposes, including--at a college--instruction and experimentation, artwork and music-making, sociability and conviviality. Good buildings make it easier to be good at what we need to do.
Good buildings are also spaces of instruction, because they teach us how we deal with the constructed world. As David Orr says, architecture is a form of pedagogy. The college buildings, therefore, also reflect an evolving sense of stewardship. St. Olaf, for example, has always built for the long future, so effectively, in fact, that we are surrounded by the past. The first building on campus, Old Main, is still in daily use. Only two of our durable structures have ever been razed. This sturdy construction suggests the college's long-term commitments. All together, the blending of buildings and landscape shows students the possibilities of harmony.
St. Olaf believes in architecture as pedagogy. In 1927, professor Carl Mellby contended that "the modern college is not a factory where utilities and commodities are turned out wholesale. . . . So its outward shell should not altogether express the spirit of utility and profit nor resemble the structures where competition and material struggle for gain are the outstanding forces. Rather it should say: Here dwells the thinker and the scholar, the poet and the missionary, the prophet and the reformer: all those who have a vision of a better world and have dedicated their abilities to its realization."
Beginning in the Twenties, the college has designed many buildings in variations of the Norman Gothic style. Mellby liked this architectural association with the medieval monastery, because, he said, it embodied "the same ideas and ideals as those which the modern Christian institution of learning stands for. The striving for truth and beauty, for nobility and dignity of thinking and living, for all self-denial and selfless service was the soul of the monastery as it is of the ideal college." Mellby considered the Gothic a potent teacher, even in the details of a building like Holland Hall. The massive walls and buttresses suggested "the permanence and the power of the religious and intellectual ideas which it is to shelter." The repetition of ascending lines spoke of "the upward reach of the search for truth and beauty and the deep seated striving of the human mind and heart for an ideal lying far above things commonplace and material." The constant variation in form and line pointed to "the richness and variety of human thinking and human experience, as well as to the endless resources of the world, spiritual and material, to which we are heirs."
Recent construction expresses the college's commitment to environmental stewardship. The new Buntrock Commons, for example, is meant to teach us as it shelters us. It takes advantage of natural light in many of its public spaces. Its roof insulation puts it thirty percent ahead of state standards in energy efficiency. And the college is committed to composting all of the cafeteria food waste, taking it out of the solid waste stream and converting it to organic fertilizers.
St. Olaf's campus and buildings support a wide variety of student needs. Outdoor spaces offer areas for contemplation and recreation. Indoor spaces provide shelter and furnishings to help students fulfill additional goals. The Commons conserves the social community by creating congenial spaces for the informal conversations that are so much a part of life at a residential college. The Rolvaag Library offers individual spaces for study and quiet contemplation. Boe Chapel offers an uplifting space for worship, lectures and performances. And residence halls offer rooms for shared living, along with lounges and rec rooms for shared entertainment.
Campus Culture: Why We Live Together
At St. Olaf College, students live together on campus because it's good for them. Studies regularly show that students who live on campus participate in more extracurricular, social and cultural events at college. They interact more often with faculty and friends. They are more satisfied with college, and are more likely to graduate. And, compared to commuters, they show greater gains in autonomy and self-concept, and in aesthetic, cultural and intellectual values. They become more socially and politically open-minded, and more likely to participate in productive groups. A rich college culture actually enhances the academic achievement of students.
St. Olaf is committed to the continuation and improvement of its nurturing college culture. St. Olaf is a friendly place. Although we may have our doubts about the universal appropriateness of "Minnesota nice," we generally practice it here. St. Olaf is also a civil place: we encourage the practice of civility in our interpersonal interactions, but also in classroom discussions and debates, and even (usually) in campus politics. The campus is where we learn to be thoughtful with other people. We care for the campus, for the college community, and for each other.
St. Olaf's residential character is an essential part of its mission. We believe that students learn important lessons of freedom and responsibility by living together. Moving away from home, students make new homes together in the close quarters of the residence hall. We don't want students to see each other only as brains in bodies, or to talk only about classwork together (although we are not unhappy when they do talk about classwork together). Instead, we try to structure residential life so that students interact with each other as multi-faceted persons.
Residence life also teaches lessons of difference and tolerance. Residence halls move most of our students from the privacies and privatism of the American single-family home to the shared spaces of a wider world. (A hundred years ago, of course, going to college often meant that, for the first time, you got a bed of your own.) From the time they meet their roommates, students experience different worldviews and life experiences, different definitions of personal and household cleanliness, different religious and political ideals, different work and sleep patterns, different attitudes toward work and play, different skills and different gifts. Students learn how to accommodate and (sometimes) appreciate these differences. They learn skills of negotiation and cooperation, of compromise and confrontations, of compassion and consideration, of patience and sheer endurance. They learn tolerance, and, in the best of cases, they learn better ways of doing things. This is a kind of lifelong learning that comes with the freedom and the restrictions of a residential college.
At St. Olaf, we also try to make sure that every student encounters some strange ideas, and even some strange people. This is not very hard. Roommates often provide a good case of "perspective by incongruity." Some devoted Lutherans find it strange that not all people take religion seriously, but more secular students find people who take religion seriously positively exotic. The student from the suburbs gets new outlooks on life from a roommate from rural South Dakota. Large numbers of students believe that any adults who are passionate about Latin or History or Chemistry are very strange indeed.
At St. Olaf, we are dedicated to the proposition that our differences make a difference in good thinking. But we also believe that the experience of diversity is as important as the study of diversity, and we are committed to providing "diversity competence"--an ability to work with all members of a multicultural society--to all our students. In the beginning, St. Olaf College was purposefully multicultural, as it worked at adapting Norwegians to American life, and vice versa. Now, we try to recruit a wider variety of people, and people with a wider variety of ideas, to participate in the overlapping multicultural communities of Manitou Heights. This is easier said than done. Each year, dozens of students from countries across the world join the St. Olaf community, and enliven it with new accents and perspectives. But a college of Norwegian-Lutheran origins located in Northfield isn't yet an obvious choice (or a first choice) for many African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, or Asian-Americans. Currently, about seven percent of our student population comes from these groups. Still, it's a continuing challenge to everybody at St. Olaf to consider how we can be good for an increasingly multicultural America.
We're much more successful at promoting diversity competence by sending our students somewhere else, where they themselves are minorities. More than 80 percent of St. Olaf's students spend a term off-campus, not because they don't like the campus, but because they want the "perspective by incongruity" that travel affords. The close communities that develop in a month or more of common travel often translate back into friendships on the Hill, and the combination of these off-campus friendships with the friendships of first-year corridors and student organizations is one of the things that makes the culture of Manitou Heights truly distinctive.
Like other aspects of St. Olaf's history, the residence life program at the college depends in part on serendipitous circumstance. At the beginning, of course, the faculty and students lived in the same building, the Main Building. Eventually, as the college grew, the faculty moved off-campus, but for decades they lived close to school, and entertained students often in their homes. Many faculty still live within walking distance, and St. Olaf is still a part of their neighborhood. Although other faculty live geographically at some distance from the college, they still maintain close social connections to students and colleagues. Indeed, many of the faculty find that former students are their current friends. This tradition of sustained (and often personal) interaction between students and faculty is a distinctive and valuable feature of St. Olaf, and one that we intend to maintain.
To some extent, the close interactions of St. Olaf campus life are Gertrude Hilleboe's doing. Hilleboe came to St. Olaf in 1908, graduated in 1912, and became Dean of Women in 1915. "Gert" lived in the residence halls as a house mother from 1915 to 1952. As Dean of Women, she helped shape the college's long-lasting commitment to co-education by championing the active participation of women in the social and political life of the college. She also directed the development of St. Olaf's pioneering (and lasting) program of Junior Counselors, in which talented juniors volunteer to live and serve as advisors on the first-year corridors. This distinctive arrangement helps incoming students with common questions and concerns to get them resolved, and to enter the larger community of college as a cohesive cohort.
The college provides food for thought and for the spirit, but also for our bodies. The food service uses fresh ingredients to create a variety of nutritional foods for people on campus. It's still cafeteria food, and students complain about it, of course, but we try to prepare it with care, and to provide a setting for the extended conversations over meals that nourish community. The cafeteria consequently is one of the most beautiful spaces on the St. Olaf campus.
Freedom and Responsibility
From its beginnings, American culture has experienced the tensions of freedom and responsibility. As Eric Foner notes in The Story of Freedom, the definition of the word has changed considerably. In the 17th century, a person found freedom in community, and was only free to do good. These days, we often seek freedom from community, the freedom to do as we please. In this ongoing cultural tension between freedom and responsibility, St. Olaf sets parameters that limit the freedoms of our students. Our alcohol policy, for example, prohibits the consumption of alcoholic beverages on campus--not just for students, but for faculty and visitors as well. This doesn't mean that nobody drinks on campus, but it does mean that the college requires students to think twice about drinking. Even if alcohol can be a good thing in moderation, American society is not in general a culture of moderation, and college youth are often tempted to experiment with extremes. Most of our students are too young to buy beer legally, and for their sake, as well as for other reasons, we try--with mixed success--to keep alcohol off-campus.
The college has also been fairly conservative about the impact of cars on intellectual and community life. A 1916 plan for the campus--drafted at the height of early enthusiasm for automobiles--included an extensive road system. But it was never developed, and the campus remains primarily a peaceful pedestrian environment. Until June of 1960, only seniors were allowed to have cars on campus. But since then, the college has allowed cars by permit only, fearing that students will drive themselves to distraction(s) in cars. Cars are a centrifugal force in American culture, but the college expects a St. Olaf education to be centripetal and communal. As an instructive counterpoint to the world, a place for contemplation and conversation, the college tries to encourage students to stay on campus to learn and live together.
Lots of things happen in residence halls, and not all of them are a part of the college mission. But educational researcher Alexander Astin has found that "residential liberal arts colleges in general, and highly selective liberal arts colleges in particular, produce a pattern of consistently positive student outcomes not found in any other type of American higher-education institution." His research shows that residential liberal arts colleges offer both educational and existential benefits to their students. Students at liberal arts colleges, compared to other college students, "are more satisfied with the faculty, the quality of teaching, and the general education program, and are more likely to view the institution as student-oriented. Attending a private liberal arts college also enhances the student's odds of completing the bachelor's degree, being elected to student office, trusting the administration, and seeing the institution as focused on social change." Astin also shows that campus life is an important factor not just in student satisfaction, but in academic achievement: "liberal arts colleges, more than other types of institutions, enhance the student's chances of enrolling in graduate study, winning graduate fellowships, and eventually earning the doctorate degree." In short, colleges like St. Olaf make a difference.
Why is this? It turns out that the college environment is a surprisingly strong influence on student learning: most of these effects, Astin shows, "appear to be attributable to the private liberal arts college's small size, its residential nature, and the strong student orientation of its faculty." The existential elements of college life affect how students learn and live. Small residential colleges produce these benefits, presumably because their intentional communities allow for the ongoing conversations (between students and faculty and among students) that are an essential part of college life.
Recently, as members of the college community designed the new campus center as a commons, students demonstrated how intentional their community can be. They adamantly chose to eat together in a single cafeteria, they said, because it's like a secular communion--a place where everybody can come to share a meal together. They chose a central location for student post office boxes, again, because the P.O.s have become a traditional gathering spot. They chose to share unlocked P.O.s, because, in general, they trust each other. At the end of the week, the P.O.s are often lined with "Friday flowers," ritual tokens of affection or appreciation. Small things like these eventually make a big difference in campus culture.
Campus Culture: Organizational Life
Although it doesn't show on a student's transcript, campus life is an essential part of a St. Olaf education. Students generally spend less than twenty hours a week in classrooms or labs, but they are learning day and night. Indeed, as hard as you try, you can't stop them from learning, because learning is what human beings do. But you can help them, and so the college intentionally structures both time and spaces (including social spaces), for students to live and learn together.
On this campus, in these buildings, St. Olaf students have developed their own college culture. For all of 125 years, students have created their own organizations to do things they value. In the early years, literary and debating clubs were particularly popular. Now, as then, organizations are a counterpoint to the competitive individualism of much of American academic life, and a place where thoughtfulness takes a different form. It's a place where students from different majors come together, where the academic perspectives of the curriculum can be applied to the challenges of the extracurriculum. The student organizations are places where practices of commitment teach lessons of cooperation and contention, planning and endurance. They give students experience with the voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville considered the foundation of American civil society.
The college doesn't organize the student organizations, but it encourages them, hoping that students will come to understand the pleasures and the pains of constructive work together. The college creates the context in which students can determine the contents of their organizations. Because of their centrality to students' extra-curricular education, for example, the college has provided a central place for student organizations in the new Commons. With individual offices and shared workspaces and conference rooms, the organizations can work effectively both separately and together.
Organizational life complements the academic and religious life of the college. The political organizations like the Democrats and Republicans and Greens remind us that social problems aren't merely academic. The various forms of student government let students participate in the shaping of campus culture, and practice the skills needed to re-shape American culture. The religious organizations like the student congregation and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes remind us that religion isn't just a sometime thing. Service organizations like Habitat for Humanity show how students can learn by doing a different sort of homework; other service organizations let students learn by teaching or mentoring students at the Laura Baker School or at middle schools in the Twin Cities. Athletic organizations remind us of our embodied existence, the pleasures of play, and the delights of teamwork. Social organizations like the Lion's Pause and the Larson Coffeehouse create spaces (both social and geographic) for having fun together. Organizations like Harambe provide a space for multicultural students to come together--both with people like themselves, and with diverse other students at the college. And miscellaneous organizations like the fly-fishing club remind us that no system of classification can encompass the imaginative purposes of our students.
Music organizations have a special place in St. Olaf's campus culture. They teach the beauties of sound, and the aesthetics and ethics of ensemble performance. They bring together students from different majors and different subcultures of the college to play and sing together. The choirs and instrumental ensembles teach music, but they also teach cooperation, interdependence, and human harmony. Several of the music organizations nationally and internationally, and they find the combination of public performances and bus or plane rides make for conversations and community. You might think that students who take time for music would suffer in their other work, but research shows just the opposite--that participation in music is correlated with academic achievement.
St. Olaf's athletic programs also offer special opportunities for students to learn as athletes. In the tradition of Ade Christenson, who served St. Olaf for 38 years, the Ole coaches try "to make athletics important but not too important." Christenson loved John Ruskin's adage that "the greatest reward for a man's job is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it." And the men and women of the Ole sports teams--both intercollegiate and intramural--still learn a variety of skills, not all of which are athletic. They learn teamwork, which is paradoxically a form of both cooperation and competition. The football team, for example, fosters just the sort of cooperation that gives a group a competitive advantage. The "work" of teamwork is long and hard and time-consuming, as athletes practice for their performances. And the performance is important--one of the reasons that extracurricular activities are so important to students is that they have demonstrable results that many people see--not just a single professor.
In many other ways, too, the students who play together stay together, as friendships form around the recreation and physical activities that are also an essential part of St. Olaf's campus culture. Intramural sports, club sports, open recreational activities, fitness programs, aerobic and aquatic programs all complement the college's academic requirements in Physical Activity. Joggers and walkers and cross-country skiers tour the campus and natural lands in season. Frisbees fly on the campus green--and on the frisbee golf course--in the Fall and Spring. During the cold months of the winter, students engage in hockey, broomball, and ice skating. And during the whole school year, a Peer Education program promotes conversations about health and wellness, including such topics as nutrition, exercise, spiritual and emotional health, chemical health, relationships, sexuality, and sexual safety.
Other events, organized and less organized, also become a part of campus culture. For many years, for example, the "First Nighter" was a St. Olaf tradition. During Week One, men and women were lined up by height, and marched together. Each man presented a rose to his assigned date, and they kissed before proceeding to the evening's entertainment. It was a charming enactment of romance and chivalry, but its charm wore thin in a new era of women's independence and changing attitudes toward dating and marriage. Other traditions have persisted. Concerts and performances in the Lion's Pause have made the transition from basement quarters in the old Ytterboe Hall to state-of-the-art facilities in the new Commons. The seniors still march together 100 days before graduation, and new traditions are undoubtedly being invented.
Unfortunately, the rich academic and residential life of the campus causes some of our students to be over-scheduled. Many St. Olaf students spread themselves thin with commitments. They work hard in classes, and many of them have two (or more) academic majors. They work hard in student employment. About a third of our students participate in music organizations, and many of them are members of multiple associations. This is a good thing, because it's one of the most important forms of learning in college. But engagement is not without its costs. At a time when students need time to think and talk about the big questions that college poses, some of them are too tied up in meetings and practices and performances.
Because we schedule ourselves so incessantly, it means that we're often not available for the serendipitous occasions that occur--the visiting speaker, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concert, the St. Olaf Theatre's latest play. Our daily planners get so full that there's no place for the unplanned event or concert, the circuitous conversation or the meditative epiphany. We work so hard that we often miss the education that working less might provide. We forget that, at its root, the word "school" derives from the Greek word for "leisure," and we often fail to maintain the leisure that would actually enhance our thoughtfulness.
The campus is the center of St. Olaf's life of learning, but it's not the only place we learn. We encourage our students to study off-campus in their undergraduate education, and we also encourage them to bring their insights back home. The same is true after commencement, when the cohesive campus culture of the college takes a new form. The graduates scatter geographically to graduate and professional schools, to business and government, to nursing and teaching and social work positions, to the Peace Corps and Lutheran Volunteer Corps. But they maintain connections even in this diaspora. They marry each other, work with each other, and travel together. Globetrotting St. Olaf graduates are often amazed to run into other Oles overseas. In its early years, the college assumed that the cohesiveness of the Norwegian-American Lutheran community would keep our graduates in conversation. But now we are more intentional about it, expanding our mission to include opportunities for life-long learning.
St. Olaf College is committed to the life-long learning of its graduates, and of other people too. The college incarnates its mission on campus, but we are increasingly mindful of our mission off-campus as well. We do this in a number of ways. Faculty often share ideas at alumni/ae gatherings across the country. The Center for Life Long Learning has created a new institution called an Olaf Life-Long Learning Institute (acronym OLLI, guess how it's pronounced) to provoke the life of the mind. In addition, during the summer, the college regularly sponsors conferences and workshops for its graduates and other off-campus constituencies. The annual Theology and Music Conference is probably the most renowned, but others include Boys State, Upward Bound, Elderhostel, and a variety of sports and music camps.
The nation's first listener-supported radio service, St. Olaf 's public radio station, WCAL, continues a long tradition of sharing music and ideas with a multitude of people who live off-campus. Such offerings complement the offerings of a church-related liberal arts college in several different ways. WCAL features classical music, and the station's educated and engaging hosts help a large audience to appreciate the forms and possibilities of that music. WCAL carries much of the information programming from National Public Radio, but it also produces series that are heard nationwide. "For Kids' Sake" radio, for example, is a weekly program focusing on the lives of American children, and available for national syndication. "Sing for Joy," a weekly choral program inspired by the Biblical texts of the day, is heard on 250 stations nationwide. In addition, WCAL broadcasts the daily college chapel service, so that people off-campus can join the St. Olaf worship community.
Another local institution with a national audience is the St. Olaf Christmas Festival. Begun in 1912 under the direction of the inimitable F. Melius Christiansen, the Christmas Festival is a musical worship service shared with the public. It is a broad expression of the college's character, and our students' commitment to the musical arts: currently, almost a quarter of St. Olaf students participate in the ensembles that perform for the festival. As Christiansen himself said in 1920, "the choir and the band are a natural outgrowth of the culture here. They have grown naturally from a little seed way back in history and like flowers in the woods, grew under favorable conditions. That we were successful was only that the flavor of St. Olaf was given to the world and they seemed to like it."
An additional St. Olaf off-campus project focused literally on the flowers in the woods--and in prairies and wetlands too. Established in 1991, the School Nature Area Project (SNAP) worked statewide with many Minnesota school districts to plan and develop school nature areas, and innovative, hands-on learning units to bring students into a first-hand relationship with the natural world. SNAP provided assistance in site planning and development, ecology and environmental education, curriculum planning and development, leadership training, and technology applications. It helped younger students to see and hear and touch and smell the elementary relationships of the natural world. Although it no longer has institutional connections to St. Olaf, the program still evidences the college's characteristic combination of scholarship and service.
In campus culture, as in the curriculum, the college mission is to do what it can to make it possible for students to do what they need to do. The faculty can structure classes and assignments and exams, but they can't learn for students; students do that on their own. The staff can make it easy for students to learn from their experiences on the campus, and students themselves can also be serendipitously creative. Indeed, we count on their creativity and conviviality to convert the opportunities provided by St. Olaf College into their own campus culture for nurturing the growth of their various gifts in the service of human freedom and freely-chosen communities.
We know, however, that we are not always the community that we intend to be. We have our fair share of mistrust and misunderstanding, our arguments and conflicts. There are days when anger and animosity overcome our feelings of belonging and inclusiveness. There are times when we seem hypocritical, even to ourselves. Sometimes we forget that what we share is greater than where we differ. But these breaches of faith and community are, in fact, part of the process of community, which depends on forgiveness and reconciliation. In a world of imperfect human beings, these inevitable antagonisms are part of the raw material of community, which is not a state of harmony, but a process of learning to live together. Community is an ongoing practice of commitment, which needs to be renewed daily, and can be creatively renewed even in controversy. In our campus life and our residential life, in our extracurricular activities and our organizations, we commit ourselves to understanding our differences, and using them to make us better.
Over the years, St. Olaf College has been faithful to a vision of learning from life, and of lifelong learning, and it has tried to create a community of constructive forces on campus. We recommit ourselves to those goals, but we also recognize that we are co-creators of campus life with our students, and, ultimately, with God.