Rooted in Rigor
October 26, 2021
By Laura J. Cole ’04 ’08MLS
By investing in the strength of Rollins’ unique academic model, we continue to embolden our position as one of the country’s best and most innovative liberal arts institutions.
If the large oak tables in Orlando Hall could talk, they’d tell a history of a college on the forefront of progress. They’d speak of the students and faculty who have gathered around them for nearly a century in pursuit of knowledge and connection. They’d tell the story of a liberal arts education at work—of the changes in teaching over time, yes, but also of the constant center: the spark that occurs when diverse minds and ideas converge.
It is the story of rigorous learning in intimate environments where students develop broad-based knowledge alongside a suite of skills like creative problem solving, critical thinking, collaborative teamwork, and clear communication that are immune to the fast-paced fluctuations of our ever-evolving world. And it’s a story that’s being told far and wide—and garnering the recognition it rightly deserves.
Phi Beta Kappa (PBK)—the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society—recently voted to establish a chapter at Rollins, making the College one of the less than 10 percent of U.S. institutions to host a PBK chapter. The membership will provide students the opportunity to join a notable group of scholars that includes 17 U.S. presidents, 42 U.S. Supreme Court justices, and more than 150 Nobel laureates—an accomplishment earned after a scrupulous three-year vetting process that examined every aspect of the College’s academic experience, from the rigor of the curriculum to the credentials and scholarship of the faculty.
“Earning a Phi Beta Kappa chapter recognizes Rollins’ commitment to liberal arts education and acknowledges the academic excellence of the institution,” says political science professor Don Davison, who led the application committee. “Receiving a Phi Beta Kappa chapter is a collective achievement of Rollins’ faculty, staff, and students who embrace and nurture free inquiry, diversity of ideas, a life of the mind, and ethical citizenship.”
But what’s drawing acclaim is not just what’s happening in isolation around those oak tables—or in Bush Science Center’s finely tuned labs or on the Annie Russell Theatre’s iconic stage. It is how students are putting the skills and knowledge they’re gaining in the classroom to the test. This combination of classroom learning and real-world application helped Rollins become the first liberal arts college to be selected to participate in the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering Scholars. And one of only 30 colleges around the globe chosen for the United Nations’ Millennium Fellowship in 2018. And a top producer of Fulbright Scholars as well as an incubator for some of the world’s most competitive scholarships, including Boren, Goldwater, Marshall, Rhodes, and Truman.
Building on the personalized learning environments that have fueled Rollins’ rigorous academic experience for more than 135 years, the Brighter Together campaign aims to make the hallmarks of Rollins’ educational program a national model for mentorship and engaged learning, which includes increasing opportunities for student-faculty research, investing in outstanding faculty, and developing and strengthening programs that best prepare students to address society’s greatest challenges and opportunities.
A Model for Success
Since 1885, Rollins has held firm to the belief that a college education should do more than prepare students for their first job. It should prepare them for a lifetime of learning and outfit them with the knowledge and tools to thrive in an uncertain future. In a time where the careers of tomorrow have yet to be created, our innovative, interdisciplinary education—one created and nurtured by expert faculty deeply invested in teaching—equips students with the expertise to succeed as the world evolves.
When faculty first began meeting in 2008 to update the College’s curriculum, they wanted to make sure students were able to do more than take courses in different disciplines. They wanted to empower students to make connections across multiple perspectives and be able to apply them in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world. The result? Rollins Foundations in the Liberal Arts (RFLA), a developmental, integrative general education curriculum that teaches students to think across barriers and work in diverse teams to design strategies to real-world problems.
“More than ever, our students need skills like critical thinking, problem solving, group work, public speaking, being able to think about problems holistically, and looking at a problem from multiple different lenses to come up with a comprehensive solution—all of these are the things that the RFLA program really emphasizes and that we know employers look for,” says Ashley Kistler, professor of anthropology and associate dean of academics.
In fact, when the World Economic Forum surveyed 350 top executives from nine leading industries about the skills necessary for future success, 10 rose to the top, among them complex problem solving, creativity, people management, service orientation, negotiation skills, and cognitive flexibility—exactly the kind of acumen students develop through our distinctive model of liberal arts education.
“Rollins has this brilliant pragmatic liberal arts vision that’s completely aligned with our mission of educating students to be global citizens and responsible leaders, prepared for both a meaningful life—which is tremendously important—and a productive career,” says Susan Singer, vice president for academic affairs and provost. “We care deeply that students have this really rich, rigorous liberal arts experience, but it’s not isolated from the world. It’s in service of the world. And I think that’s really powerful.”
The proof of RFLA’s success can be seen in Rollins graduates like Brandon McNichol ’19, a double major in biochemistry/molecular biology and music who is now in his third year of medical school at Northwestern University.
“One of the reasons I felt prepared for med school is my experience in the Rollins general education curriculum,” says McNichol. “Medical schools are looking for team players and leaders who understand different aspects of the world through multiple lenses. They don’t just want scientists but rather a complete package. These kind of classes and Rollins’ emphasis on exploring a lot of different interests really allowed me to find my niche.”
Those beloved oval tables in Orlando Hall—which have become symbolic of a Rollins education—were first introduced in the 1920s in response to a revolutionary idea from Hamilton Holt, the College’s eighth president, that would forever change the overall liberal arts approach to education.
Holt was convinced that lecturing was “the worst pedagogical method ever devised for imparting knowledge.” Intent on finding a better solution, he introduced the Conference Plan, which Holt envisioned as “a joint adventure,” where both professor and student participated in the educational process together.
These one-on-one interactions became the model for a liberal arts education in colleges across the nation and still inform Rollins’ commitment today to intimate learning environments, a low student-faculty ratio, and opportunities for mentorship.
Research by Gallup continues to prove the efficacy of Holt’s grand idea, finding specifically that meaningful mentorship during college produces positive long-term outcomes for alumni after college, “including higher well-being, employee engagement, and more positive perceptions of their alma mater.”
Take Tamer Elkhouly ’19, for example. He recalls fondly the countless hours he spent talking with business professor Richard Lewin, who influenced not only Elkhouly’s career as a contracts manager at Raytheon Technologies, but also his involvement as a mentor for student veterans.
“Sometimes it’s hard being in the military and then transitioning into the academic world,” says Elkhouly. “But Dr. Lewin allowed me to open up to him about my experiences and what I wanted to do. He would thoughtfully explain every requirement and answer all my questions but was also vulnerable in telling me aspects of his personal life and how he got to his position as a teacher. I really connected with that.”
The Army veteran and business management major has carried that example with him, especially now as he mentors other veterans during their transition from academia to careers in the professional world. As part of the Raytheon Veterans Organization, which falls outside his formal position, Elkhouly helps set up networking events and works on initiatives such as the Boston Red Sox’s annual fundraiser. But because of Lewin, he also takes the extra time to answer questions and be vulnerable and share his own journey.
Elkhouly says that because of Lewin, he’s doing a lot more than he thought he could, including pursuing an executive MBA in aerospace and defense at the University of Oklahoma while working full time.
“At the end-of-year awards ceremony, he gave me one piece of advice,” says Elkhouly. “‘Tamer, continue to pursue your education as it relates to aerospace and defense. Whatever you do, you have a gift and should pursue that knowledge and connect with people.’ Because of that, I actually ended up getting admitted into grad school, which I would have probably never done had it not been for that advice. I genuinely thank him for that.”
Advancing Our Approach
Through our Brighter Together campaign, we will build on the powerful partnerships between our expert faculty and industrious students by elevating the role of student-faculty research, attracting and retaining some of our profession’s brightest minds; and bolstering the programs that cover everything from social entrepreneurship to the fine arts. In doing so, our students will take their next steps into the world better prepared to confront challenges and glean opportunities, drawing on a nationally recognized liberal arts education that demonstrates how all areas of knowledge are connected.
Creating Research Opportunities
A hallmark of Rollins’ undergraduate experience, the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program (SFCSP) empowers students to explore their curiosity while working alongside faculty to gain deep research experience typically only available at the graduate level.
“When we’re doing research together, it stops being ‘I’m the teacher. You’re the student,’” says Chris Fuse, associate professor of physics and SFCSP program director. “It turns into we’re colleagues on this journey to figure out things we haven’t done before. I’m as important to this research as you are. We’re equals.”
Jeremy Spitzenberger ’20, a physics major who is now pursuing a PhD in aerospace engineering at the University of Missouri, spent the summer of 2019 with Fuse examining how galaxies form, a project that earned him the Brennan R. Bennett B Kind Foundation award. They’re now working on writing up their findings for publication.
“I was recently reviewing the analysis and going, shoot, I need to give him a call because he knows this better than I do,” says Fuse.
Since its inception in 1999, more than 700 students have engaged in research and collaborative scholarship through this program, working alongside 200 faculty who represent nearly every department. These powerful partnerships have resulted in more than 100 publications, performances, and books in topics ranging from African art to X-ray astrophysics.
Every year, the program funds around 40 projects from an annual program budget of about $300,000, consisting of both alumni donations and institutional funds. The funding covers stipends for faculty and a $3,000 stipend for students, who can live on campus for free during the eight-week commitment. The College also pays for students to attend conferences and present their findings alongside professional academics.
Support from generous donors will allow Rollins to offer that opportunity for more students.
“We can pretty effectively handle 50 students now, but my dream goal is reaching 75 students a year,” says Fuse.
The program recently received a boost for students interested in biology from Gene Albrecht ’69. Albrecht’s similar research experience—more than 40 years before it was an official offering at the College—inspired him to provide a legacy gift establishing an endowment to fund collaborative research in organismal biology, which has a projected value of $850,000.
That research project fueled Albrecht’s curiosity and led to a PhD from the University of Chicago and his career as a researcher on primate morphology and professor of anatomy at the University of Southern California. It also led him to pay it forward, so more students could have similar world-expanding—and world-enhancing—opportunities.
Investing in the South’s Best Professors
For the past three years, U.S News & World Report has ranked Rollins among the nation’s best colleges for its uncommon commitment to teaching undergraduate students. It’s a distinction made possible because of faculty like Raghabendra KC ’13, one of many professors at Rollins making a difference in students’ lives— whether it’s in class discussing Google Analytics or during an impromptu chat outside the Rice Family Pavilion.
After graduating from Rollins and earning a PhD from Cambridge University, the assistant professor of business could have gone on to work for a Fortune 500 company or a large public research university. But instead, he returned to his alma mater to make an impact on the next generation of Rollins students.
“My life would be absolutely different had it not been for Rollins,” he says. “I came back to teach here because I wanted to be able to have the same impact on people that my professors had on me and give back to the institution that gave so much to me.”
The self-described “lower-middle-class kid from Nepal” is a case study in the power of philanthropy.
“There’s no way I could have attended Rollins had it not been for what was then called the Cornell Scholarship,” he says. “To leave my country for the first time to attend the scholarship weekend and be shown what is possible, and then to be offered the scholarship—it was a no-brainer then. It’s a no-brainer now.”
In addition to the Cornell Scholarship—now the Alfond Scholarship—KC credits a donation that funded an internship in finance that showed him a career he didn’t want to pursue as well as a $500 gift to present a paper on portfolio optimization at Kennesaw State University, which he says launched his research journey. Returning to Rollins is as much a no-brainer as accepting that full scholarship more than a decade ago.
“I honestly can’t think of another place where you can have as much impact other than, say, medicine, where you’re literally saving someone’s life,” he says. “I get to guide 22 students on their life journeys, three times a week, in three different classes. With 66 students a semester, that’s 132 people a year, and if I am here for 20 years, that’s almost 2,000-plus students who I can impact. If those 2,000-plus people impact just 10 more people in their life, my impact has reached 20,000 people, and that’s a lower estimate. Being able to impact 20,000 lives by just doing your regular job—that’s a dream come true.”
But investing in students means investing in faculty. If Rollins is to continue to be a destination for the world’s brightest scholars, teachers, and mentors, the College needs to be able to provide them with the support and tools they need to flourish.
“We’re preparing our students to be beacons of light, beacons of hope, and solution finders in a very complex world,” says Singer. “How do we do that and how do we continually do that better? We have to provide very rich, challenging experiences. We are able to do that through our fabulous faculty, which means it is imperative we support, strengthen, and recognize their contributions.”
Strengthening Academic Programs
Nancy Siebens Binz ’55, who traveled to Canada and Europe with her sorority while at Rollins, believes strongly that experiencing different parts of the world provides lessons you can’t get in a classroom alone.
“Traveling internationally is an essential part of every person’s lifelong learning journey, no matter when it starts,” says Binz, who has established two endowments that help integrate international perspectives and cultural fluency across the Rollins experience. “It teaches us to see the world through a wide-angle lens and to appreciate other cultures and learn from them. These experiences help create fulfilling lives and careers where we must relate to all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds.”
Rollins’ work in communities across the globe tackling real-world problems inspired Ronald ’65 P’98 and Todd Benderson ’98 to create the Delta Sonic Car Wash Endowed Fund. After learning about chemistry professor Pedro Bernal’s field study focused on providing access to clean water across the Dominican Republic, they generously established a $1 million endowment through their company, Delta Sonic Car Wash Systems, Inc. The fund supports programs and service projects that promote and provide clean water for families around the world in addition to other water-related initiatives at Rollins, such as the recent effluent wastewater testing on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep our community safe.
All of these endowments are part of a range of initiatives aimed at growing the reach and influence of a variety of programs, including everything from increasing international learning opportunities through the Center for Global Initiatives and creating more curriculum integration with the Rollins Museum of Art to expanding community partnerships for the Crummer Graduate School of Business and establishing a new Quantitative Skills Center to help students better analyze and interpret data, an initiative that’s risen to the top this past year.
“Understanding how to work with and make sense of quantitative data is more important for everybody than it ever was before,” says Singer. “If you can’t think quantitatively, you can’t make sense of your world. That’s why we promise to graduate quantitatively literate Tars, and for many, a bit of extra help or practice is key to their success across our curriculum. The center will provide that support for a student in a beginning class or one wanting to try a new analytic approach for their honors thesis.”
And it is that commitment to helping our students understand our world and how best to engage with it that lies at the heart of Rollins’ academic promise as we create the next generation of global leaders.
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