Brenau President Ed Schrader poses for a photo with retired Rear Adm. Annie Andrews, the 2016 commencement speaker, who engineered the experience of several college presidents aboard an aircraft carrier to encourage programs to recruit women into the U.S. Navy. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Experience Counts

In early May, international news organizations reported that the Chinese government had canceled a scheduled visit to Hong Kong by the USS Stennis. The Navy supercarrier had been operating in the Asia-Pacific in the midst of ongoing tensions among the nations in the region over Chinese man-made islands in what otherwise would be considered international waters. Chinese warships had been shadowing the American vessel for a month. When I heard the news about the Stennis, my involuntary reaction was “That’s my ship! That’s my ship!”

You may think that reaction of both concern and pride a bit odd since I never served in the U.S. Navy. However, through what may seem to others to be a minuscule experience, I had the opportunity to be aboard the Stennis for a few days in May 2015. Small or not, that experience gave me a bit of insight into the day-to-day lives of the more than 4,000 men and women who are part of the ship’s complement. They populate a floating city built around nuclear reactors, transporting countless tons of highly volatile aviation fuel and conventional high-explosive ordnance – not to mention, presumably, nuclear weapons. These sailors live and work around a moving airport, subject to the pitch and roll of rough seas, steering into the wind at about 30 knots (or 35 mph to you landlubbers) when launching or retrieving aircraft; and some of the planes make their final approaches to what amounts to a 500-foot airstrip at about 150 miles per hour. So, even without the geopolitical realities today that much too often erupt into armed conflict, these people live and work in harm’s way routinely every second of every day.

Experiencing what it is like to walk in another person’s shoes or to see an issue from their point of view, if even for a moment, makes us better people. Every experience – no matter how large or how small – helps us know a little more today than we did yesterday.

Einstein said experience is the only source of knowledge. The more cynical Oscar Wilde defined it as “the name we give our mistakes.” For Julius Caesar it was the teacher of all things. And, from a bit of movie dialogue misquoting C. S. Lewis, experience is “that most brutal of all teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

We at Brenau place great stock in experience and view its value in several ways: We constantly strive to recognize one’s prior experience as a valid credential for studying or working at Brenau. We look for methods of incorporating experiential learning into our curriculum. And we certainly place a high value on providing students, on campus and online, with a broad array of experiences – and opportunities for experience – in academics, in social interaction and in enrichment of their lives. We encourage students to share the experiences from their lives with one another. Remember that part about walking in another’s shoes?

Almost half of the ongoing $40 million ForeverGold campaign will provide long-term financial support to enhance and sustain the idea of better experiences for our students. That includes goals like an ambitious program to open up opportunities for broader international experience, as well as the basic bread-and-butter issue of endowing scholarships and other financial support, so people who could not otherwise afford it will have an opportunity for higher education.

If we are doing our jobs right – and I think we are – that body of experiences students encounter at Brenau will rock their boats in positive and transformational ways. Brenau will be that safe zone in which they can try on new ideas about themselves and their roles in the world, that mystical catalyst for inspiration and imagination, that nurturing environment in which serendipity meets purpose.

If there is one thing that our institution’s experience has taught in the past 138 years, it is that we must focus first and foremost on students and their personal experiences at Brenau. All the student experiences in the past have built the Brenau that we have today, and the experiences our students continue to have will shape the Brenau of tomorrow.

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