Before the Rain Comes

By Tom Rochon

One of my father’s favorite expressions is, “Fix the roof while the sun is shining.”

I thought often about that advice during the past year as IC faculty, staff, and students worked together to create the strategic vision we call IC 20/20. After all, the sun has long been shining on our roof. IC’s academic programs enjoy strong reputations. Graduates of our professional schools are successful in their chosen fields. The four highest new student application totals in IC history were received over the last four years.

But the world is changing and so are the demands on our students. The flood of information made available by digital technology threatens to drown those whose education does not prepare them with analytical skills and a firm grasp of conceptual frameworks. With the rapidity of change in the world, one must be adept at applying knowledge to complex situations to arrive at answers in real time. And the competition to do this is now global.

It is astonishing and humbling to realize that our students today will reach the peaks of their professional careers shortly after the year 2050. Who can imagine the world as it will be then? How can we best prepare our students not only to survive in that world, not only to thrive in that world, but also to be leaders in shaping that world? Aware that the ingredients for past success would not necessarily create a recipe for a successful future, we put everything on the table in planning the IC 20/20 vision.

One of the key principles we incorporated into that vision is a commitment to making the college experience less about teaching specific information — which students can find on their own and which is likely to be outdated quickly anyway — and more about giving them opportunities to solve real-world problems. We also recognized that students must be hands on from day one — already a tradition at IC and so a part of the roof that does not need fixing. They must work on projects individually and in teams, just as they will throughout their careers and in all the endeavors of their lives. They must become adept at pulling together multiple perspectives and skills.

A student’s involvement in clubs, organizations, and sports teams also provides valuable learning experiences, and we should help students capture and build upon what they learn in those settings. We must cultivate character and commitment by creating opportunities for students to apply their skills for the good of the community — with community defined as being everywhere from Ithaca to Indonesia.

Above all, students must see the results of their work reflected in problems solved and projects completed, and they must be effective in communicating to others what they have learned.

The most dramatic innovation in the IC 20/20 vision is the introduction of a more problem-centered approach to the general education program, which occupies a large part of every student’s first two years. We will focus the IC general education on major issues and topics rather than on a smattering of introductory courses in various departments. By taking courses in a variety of departments that are connected to a single overarching topic, students will learn to “connect the dots” across different areas of specialized knowledge. This creates an educational experience that will already in the first year be centered on how to accomplish things — just as we have always done with upper class education in the majors and professional schools.

Alumni have a substantial role in helping our current and future students connect the dots. One of the boldest elements of the IC 20/20 vision is to create a mentor network among alumni who work in a given field and students preparing to enter that field. Students would become part of this network in their freshman year, and mentorship would begin with alumni/professionals helping students understand how to take best advantage of their IC experience. We want to create an ongoing dialog in which alumni help students develop a professional outlook long before their junior year search for an internship or senior year search for a job. For alumni, we believe these mentoring conversations will be professionally and personally rewarding.

In any endeavor like this one, it is important to define in advance how we will measure success. We expect future IC students to be ready to take on the range of professional and life challenges that exist in the world but that are too seldom examined in a traditional college education. A commitment to preparing students for success has long defined the IC approach to education, but we are changing the means by which we reach that goal in recognition of the dramatic changes ongoing in the world today.

Having once tried to fix a leaky roof in the middle of a downpour, I learned by hard experience the wisdom of my father’s advice to plan ahead. The IC 20/20 vision offers a road map for Ithaca College to move from a position of strength to even greater strength as a center for excellence in student learning. We are now hard at work turning the IC 20/20 vision into reality.