Setting the Course for Success

Giving Wheaton students the freedom and flexibility to create their own path to success, the Compass Curriculum provides for personalized academic advising and professional mentorship.

by Renée T. White, Provost and Professor of Sociology

It remains a truism that a college education serves as a gateway to an array of professional opportunities. Even so, what remains up for debate for some people is what kind of education will benefit students the most. Public scrutiny of college has increased in the past few years; this is particularly the case for a liberal arts education, as evident in the comments of elected officials and in op eds and think pieces. What is it that a liberal arts education provides that is unique and makes it so valuable and effective? How does it prepare students for the world beyond college? What ensures that students—regardless of major—will be self-sustaining whether that means being employed or going to graduate school?

At Wheaton, we see the answers to these questions borne out by the experiences of our students and our alumni. In fact, Andy Brereton, Executive Dean for Student Success, discussed the myriad ways that Wheaton answers that question in his blog post, “Focusing on Student Success.” Wheaton offers an excellent cohesive student experience and our students thrive well after they graduate.

What is the connective tissue for much of this success? The Wheaton Curriculum. The Wheaton Curriculum—the general education—serves as the foundation for our students as they move from general, introductory knowledge to focused study within their majors and minors. We know that our students receive a quality education that prepares them well for work and grad school. But we also know that it is essential to take the time to assess what we do and make adjustments.

As is the tradition in higher education, Wheaton faculty undertook the call to review our Curriculum in order to reinforce what we do well: equip our students to connect their learning to professional opportunity by encouraging them to reflect on their 4-year pathway and apply their in-classroom skills to work outside of the classroom (whether as student leaders, athletes, researchers, volunteers, or interns). A curriculum review is an extensive, time-consuming, and rigorous process. Before recommending any changes, the faculty assessed what we have been able to accomplish (including surveying current students and alumni), reviewed the current scholarship on student learning and pedagogy, plus reflected on the college’s mission as well as the mission of our curriculum.

Our College’s mission is to provide “a transformative liberal arts education for intellectually curious students in a collaborative, academically vibrant residential community that values a diverse world.” As a community built on deep learning, experiential education and collaboration, I took this mission statement as an invitation to bring together students, staff, faculty and alumni to do the hard work of taking all the components that made our wonderful Connections curriculum a nationally recognized model for liberal arts and proposing the next phase of the Wheaton Curriculum. These teams have worked for the past three years with this charge in mind, and the result is The Compass Curriculum.

Before outlining how Compass builds upon Connections, I would like you to think about what a compass does and what it symbolizes. We use a compass to find our way when we are lost, to map out a path that gets us to our destination. It’s a tool for navigation as well as direction. You don’t need to know where you are currently located since the compass will tell you. But you need to hold the compass in order to find your way. What I recently learned was that compass also means “to devise or contrive often with craft or skill.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary). In my view, the Compass curriculum exhibits all of these notions. It empowers students to take ownership of their learning, to explore, to craft a path and direction with guidance, while amassing skills necessary to find their way.

What exactly is Compass?

This curriculum is intended to provide students ample opportunity to explore the array of courses we offer. Students begin in their first semester with the Connected First Year Experience (FYE). In a Connected FYE, a team of faculty (usually 2-3 faculty in a team) will explore a particularly interesting question of their own choosing with their students. Each professor comes from a different department and each has their own students. But what they do is lecture in each other’s classes, plan assignments and events that bring all the students together. This ensures that students are exposed to the examination of a question from multiple vantage points. In fall 2019, a group of four faculty gave some first year students a taste of the connected FYE in their course, Addressing Inequality in the US: A Connected FYS.

Compass also reinforces Wheaton’s commitment to intensive, personalized advising and experiential learning. All students will complete a Mentored Academic Pathway (MAP). Working with staff and faculty, students will reflect on what they are learning and create a portfolio that represents their evolution intellectually and personally. Students who complete one of three optional honors programs focused on global issues, social justice or more broadly on the arts and sciences will be required to engage in experiential learning—this might involve an internship, independent research or some other project. There are other elective components to Compass focused on professional preparation such as skills-based courses and the Liberal Education and Professional Success (LEAPS) certificates, which are skills-based groupings of 3-4 courses.

In the end, we believe that this exciting new curriculum remains grounded in what we do well while also being responsive to what our students want—flexibility in their options along with clear ways to demonstrate how their education translates into professional, post-college opportunities. I invite you to read a bit more about what inspired the creation of Compass here and learn more about the specific requirements. I believe you will share my excitement about how we are living Wheaton’s legacy of excellence.