The annual Posse Plus Retreat was held at Lake Morey in early March, and I felt privileged to be there as a participant. This event gave Posse Scholars an opportunity to invite other members of our campus into a critical dialogue for a full weekend. More than 120 faculty, staff, and students attended, committing their time, energy, and personal courage to the process. I was moved by their passion and honesty. The retreat reminded me of how much we, as a community, need to have this type of reflective time. Although it involved a subset of the campus, I believe it has opened lines of communication and brought critical issues to our attention.
The retreat invitation, sent by the Posse Foundation, defined this year’s subject this way: “This year’s Retreat is your time to collaborate, contemplate, and create the life you want and the legacy you will leave behind both collectively and individually. At this year’s Retreat, we’ll discuss what it means to be living as a Millennial; what it means to be happy; what it means to be charged with leading a world you’re only beginning to shape but will soon inherit.” (Read a PDF of the full invitation: PPR.)
It was a provocative weekend. We had many thoughtful discussions about issues such as technology and privacy, ethics, and stress on college campuses. We also explored similarities and differences across generations.
The retreat reminded me of the extent to which students are grappling with complex concerns. They’re bearing the burden of environmental irresponsibility, war, a daunting economy, a challenged and dispirited workforce, and they are thinking about how to apply their educations to the problems that need to be solved.
I heard students saying that although they feel criticized for being “checked out” or for not caring or for being disconnected from reality, they actually care a great deal about what is happening in the world. Unfortunately, some find our societal challenges so daunting they don’t know where to begin to address them.
Students talked about how fast-paced everything seems—how it’s not enough to do three things; they have to do eight things. It’s not enough to graduate from Middlebury; they have to have a plan in place before they get their diplomas.
This sense of urgency leaves little room for them to take risks, to possibly fail at something, to be flawed. Students talked about having to carry anxiety as a constant companion, anchored in the fear of not being good enough, of not doing their best at everything.
Even issues of race and diversity seem less straightforward for students now then they were for earlier generations. I heard some students describe wrestling with conflicting desires to be politically correct and at the same time to express their identities. These students try to avoid labels, which also makes it hard for them to state: “This is who I am; this is my identity, and this is what I believe.” Instead, they described feeling that they must be all things to all people. Of course, there’s strength in this type of sensitivity—these students are becoming a new kind of global citizen—but it can also come at a price if they do not believe they can freely express who they really are and what they really think.
Our dialogue over the weekend also included serious introspection about how Middlebury can foster different types of environments for students. Although the sense of anxiety and pressure many feel did not originate at Middlebury, the atmosphere on campus may somehow reinforce it for some. We asked ourselves how we could soften the environment and create an atmosphere that encourages some risk taking, introspection, and a degree of letting go. Some simple ideas were suggested. For example, adopting a pass/fail option might alleviate performance pressure and encourage some risk taking.
Although 120 people talked about these things at Lake Morey, I’d like to expand the conversation to the full campus. Please feel free to weigh in and share your views. What pressures do you feel? What legacy do you want to leave? What could Middlebury do as an institution to help foster a space to make changes, take a deep breath, and just let you be you?