I was witness recently to something that reminded me of why I do what we do at Wichita State University.
We had just finished our college commencement in Koch Arena. Family and friends were spilling out to find and congratulate their graduates – the typical chaos of families scurrying for group photos while others weaved through them.
I spotted a young man still in his regalia. With his family around him, he and his father had their arms wrapped around each other in a tight, emotional embrace that communicated more than words. They stayed motionless for over a minute, whispering in each other’s ear from time to time.
I imagined the moment as a capstone of years of sacrifice and struggle. The young man then did the same with his mother and grandmother, oblivious to the motion and clamor around them.
What made the moment poignant was my impression that he was the first in his family to graduate or even attend college. This was a seminal moment that was changing forever not only the young man’s life, but the lives and circumstances of the entire family.
It reminded me of the underlying mission of higher education – changing the world by changing the lives of our students.
Wichita State was named this month a Social Mobility Innovator for 2018 by CollegeNET, Inc. The Social Mobility Index ranks four-year U.S. colleges and universities according to how effectively they enroll students from low-income backgrounds and graduate them into promising careers. WSU has consistently ranked among the top 4-6 percent of all schools on CollegeNET’s Social Mobility Index over the past four years.
Higher education has been getting a bad rap of late. Costs have risen. Many feel we have not changed to meet 21st Century needs. Yet, over 70 percent of Americans feel that a college education is vital to a person’s success in life, twice the percentage who believed so 50 years ago. Whatever flaws we have (and no one is harder on us than those within the system), we are still seen as the ticket to a better life.
More important, we enhance those around us and empower our society to greater prosperity (educationally, economically, culturally, even spiritually) through the most noble act humans have devised – the acquisition of knowledge, and its perpetuation to younger generations.
It’s nice, though, for us to have national confirmation that one of the best at this process resides here in Wichita. As President John Bardo observed, we’ve been a blue-collar university from the beginning, where students shocked wheat in the summer to pay for school, and our current students (47 percent are first-generation students, and the vast majority work while going to college) remain “wheat shockers,” vying for a better life through the promise of education.
No one touched by this process remains unchanged. I was reminded of that by the young man. I wish him and his family well as they continue their journey. I am convinced that journey will be a far better one because of graduation.
Rodney Miller is dean of the College of Fine Arts at Wichita State University.