Reflection: How we can point students towards a happy, productive and good life

In a recent essay published in the New York Times, Richard Light, a professor at Harvard University, conveys the power that reflection has in shaping students’ lives.

For years, Light has asked students, “Imagine you are Dean for a Day. What is one actionable change you would implement to enhance your experience on campus?”

Student answers have been profound and moving. They have reflected on pathways towards a good, productive and happy life, and also on how these objectives can be in conflict. They have realized that their time at university is well spent by not only pursuing a curriculum, but also by finding answers to important life questions.

Light’s book, Making the Most of College, made a big impression on me when I read it a year ago. In the book, he discusses why some students make the most of university while others struggle and look back on years of missed deadlines and  opportunities.

He offers useful practical advice through his book. He encourages students to pursue teamwork, particularly promoting study in pairs or groups. He advocates for independent research projects and working internships. While he finds diversity to be taxing on student interactions, it is also the most illuminating of all the experiences for them.

I’ve taken his advice to heart. At McMaster Engineering, we take experiential and problem based learning, and open inquiry seriously for both undergraduate and graduate students.

Our new program “Building Thinkers, Building Leaders” includes several elements that Light champions. We will, for instance, establish an engineering living, learning residence community in  Fall 2017. Specific programming will integrate first-year students into our Faculty and university.

A “Thought Leaders” seminar series will bring prominent speakers to address our students on topics related to global challenges and complexity – and the pursuit of a good, productive and happy life. MacChangers, an interdisciplinary partnership that includes University College London (UCL), will allow student teams to bring positive changes to our McMaster campus.

We often find that we do not truly appreciate the entire value of an activity, whether it is a hike with friends through the Niagara escarpment to look at its very many waterfalls, a good read on a Sunday afternoon, or working on a project with colleagues to accomplish a shared goal. It is often afterwards, after reminiscing and reflection, that we come to truly cherish that memory and realize its true worth in shaping our lives.

In welcoming the incoming McMaster Engineering Class of 2019, I encourage our new students to use their time at our university wisely by seeking pathways towards a good, productive and happy life, and then reflecting upon them.

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