On Inspiring Learning and Lifting
By: Kelly McDonald
I walked into the classroom as a few other students were finding their seats around the long conference table. I surmised the professor would sit at the end of the table closest to the doorway, so I positioned myself at the opposite end, not to be defiant, but just to acknowledge that I was not yet part of the class. I couldn’t register, because of its enrollment limit, and my goal was to convince the professor to let me audit the class, even though the registration slots were full.
A young woman entered the classroom, smiled at me, made her way to my end of the table, and sat down beside me. Before I could say anything to her, she blurted out her question, “Would it be possible to add your class?”
I guess I looked more like an aging professor than a suitable classmate.
“I’m also trying to add this class.” I mumbled. She feigned a smile, stood up, then moved to the other end of the table. Already, I realized that enrolling in a class as a retiree was going to differ from the other university coursework I had taken in the distant past.
The professor was not convinced when I queried him after class. “I can’t interact with more than twenty students, and there isn’t a slot for you,” he replied. But he promised me a seat if any appeared before the add deadline. “I expect you to do all the work even if you’re only going to audit the class,” he said. I committed to do so, and the slot magically emerged a few days later.
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I’m a fifty-year product of Brigham Young University. I’ve been on its campus, as an employee or a student, for one-third of its existence. For most who share my veneration for BYU, its impact upon their lives largely took place during the four to eight years of intensive study in their young adulthood, which marked their higher education. But for me, that homage started much earlier, when my older brothers were students in the 1960s. Thus, as I planned my own academic future, I never looked beyond BYU to complete my formal education. When I graduated from high school, I applied only to BYU and no other institution. This was my chosen place for continued learning.
I’m no stranger to the university classroom. I completed a B.S. in engineering technology in the late 1970s, and an M.S. in computer science in the mid-1980s, both while working full time at BYU. I taught computer science during Evening School as an adjunct professor, for ten years in the late 1990s. But now, after retirement, what would drive these unusual academic behaviors in me, taking classes, doing homework, writing papers, when other retirees are out golfing, traveling, or otherwise acting their age?
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In August 2016, in his speech to the BYU faculty and other university employees, President Worthen described his goal of making this institution a hallmark of ‘Inspiring Learning’. He quoted from the talk given at his inauguration where he was challenged to create a community of learners and lifters.
Although I was not present for his talk, when I read it, the words immediately connected with me. The lifting of others was the key concept which I had been trying to understand. During my years of working for this institution, I would often reach out to my student-employees, assisting them in whatever learning experiences they needed, not just to perform their immediate work assignments, but also to prepare for their future lives after graduation. I had already, unknowingly, been seeking that very goal, learning from my work, then lifting others, over and over.
After internalizing President Worthen’s talk, I now understood how to continue my journey on that same path during my academic experience as a retiree. It was more than just reading a good book. It was more than auditing an interesting class. Rather, it was lifting others, while I was learning, in a variety of ways.
Since my retirement, I have regularly remained in contact with my former employees. I enjoyed them while working, and I wasn’t ready to give up our association simply because I was no longer employed. On one visit, I discussed the value of completing an undergraduate degree with a previous member of my staff. She was nervous about taking a class in statistics, which she needed to complete before she could graduate. She had enrolled several times in the required class, but withdrew before the deadline for fear of failure. I finally suggested, “Maybe I could take the class with you. I never took STAT-121, and we could learn this material together.” She seemed relieved, and I signed up for my first online course the following semester.
“Do you know what you’re getting into?” my wife inquired. Apparently, she sensed something I didn’t.
There was no class attendance for the online course, but the reading and homework were difficult, the midterm test-results discouraging. After an arduous four months of demanding curriculum, weekly phone calls to study, encouraging diligence, preparing for tests, sorting out questions, taking the final exam, my former employee passed the class, removing the obstacle to her graduation goal. I managed to earn a ‘B’ grade.
Another semester, in a writing class, I sat next to a young woman who became my colleague in learning the curriculum. We worked together during class time, workshopping each other's writing assignments, gaining confidence in our ability to dialogue about 'the schoolwork'.
Near the end of the class, knowing this was her final semester, I asked her what she was going to do with her life after graduation. She answered with a quaver in her voice, "I have no clue." My executive leadership experience suddenly kicked in, and I said, "We need to fix that problem." We met once a week at the library for the next month, discussing her purpose for work, crafting her personal vision statement, reviewing and improving her resume, helping her to look for job opportunities. She eventually acquired an entry-level job in technical writing after her graduation.
However, during my past five years of learning in retirement, most of the lifting I’ve done for my classmates has been much simpler. It's been giving honest feedback in writing workshops, fully taking part during group presentations, asking a question in class even though I already knew the answer, sharing an encouraging word when I sensed despair in another student.
Anyone can lift others, and it doesn’t have to be in an academic setting. We lift whenever we reach out, whether to a family member, a colleague at work, a neighbor, or even the stranger we pass in our travels. Whatever we are doing, when we help them, seems more satisfying, more delightful, more engaging, more inspiring. My past fifty years of learning at BYU has provided me with many opportunities to lift others, as an employee, as a student, and now as a retiree. During these many years at BYU, I have finally realized that the effort I made in lifting others has been the catalyst, the grand secret, the stimulus, the magic, which has made my learning, while there, inspiring.