In today’s world of technology and virtual meetings, why would you ever actually go somewhere else to learn new ideas, practices, and insights? We put this question to two participants in the NetVUE Campus Visit Program, Kristen Cahoon, director of the Piper Center for Vocation and Career at St. Olaf College, and the Rev. Peter Gray, university chaplain at The University of the South, commonly known as Sewanee. Both gathered teams together and traveled this past December to South Carolina to visit Furman University and Wofford College. Their goals? Learn best practices around advising and student success while also forming partnerships with one another. Leaders at both St. Olaf and Sewanee were seeking internal reforms, establishing task forces and initiating strategic plans, and they hoped that this visit would catalyze momentum. But why go? Why not set up Zoom calls and share your screen to pour over excel sheets and PowerPoint slides? “When thinking big picture and strategic planning, you need to get away from your day jobs,” said Cahoon, “get away as a team and be able to commiserate and share best practices with others who are struggling and engaging; that was the real joy.”
When thinking big picture and strategic planning, you need to get away from your day jobsKristen Cahoon
St. Olaf and Sewanee had been connected in the past through the Liberal Arts Career Network, and then representatives reconnected in Dallas at the NetVUE national conference in 2022. They realized both schools were in similar places: fertile ground had been tilled for upcoming institutional change, yet vocational exploration work was in a period of aspiration rather than actualization. For example, a few months prior to the joint visit to Furman and Wofford, the For Every Ole strategic project was launched at St. Olaf in anticipation of a new incoming president. The NetVUE Campus Visit Program helped St. Olaf colleagues build trust, bond, and begin to articulate a shared vision for their new presidency that integrated advising, equity in education, and a four-year pathway for vocational exploration. These conversations strengthened the vision around a developmental model of vocation at St. Olaf, which is currently exploring a NetVUE Vocation Across the Academy Grant to implement these ideas.
At Sewanee, the visit led to a clear new initiative to engage faculty in vocational exploration, launching a new cohort of Purpose and Career Fellows. “Choosing to invest in faculty as a means of driving conversations around career readiness and vocational exploration was very much influenced by our experience on this trip,” said Gray. “Faculty are and will remain critical partners in integrating vocational reflections across the university,” so this visit helped set in motion the building of coalitions needed for the longer-range goals at Sewanee. Gray also noted that the trip led to “colleagues in different departments increasingly using a common definition of vocation.” Vocational reflection strategies are now infused into two different faculty fellows programs, one centered on advising for career readiness and the other focused on civic engagement. These different faculty cohorts will likely be the bases for a Sewanee Vocation Across the Academy Grant as well.
…our work on the downslope was to sort through all the ideas that were generated and figure out what the next steps were; we were just popping with ideas!Rev. Peter Gray
Returning to the original question of “why go?”, the NetVUE Campus Visit Program helped St. Olaf and Sewanee catalyze strategic momentum, find shared language, and create immediate changes to programs, which are now serving as the foundation for future NetVUE grant proposals. These are the most apparent reasons to visit campuses doing exciting work. But there are many more reasons as well, reasons that will lead to a renewed sense of purpose for one’s own mission in higher education work. The value of building relationships across campuses around shared challenges and innovations is hard to overstate. According to Kim Heitzenrater, another colleague at Sewanee who serves as associate dean for integrated advising and career readiness, the in-person visits “allowed relationships to form between additional colleagues from St. Olaf, Sewanee, Furman, and Wofford that will allow all of us to serve our students better as we implement our new initiatives.” The NetVUE Campus Visit Program helps colleagues reimagine what is possible and why they are the right people to set new ideas in motion on their campuses. “It was an opening up for us; it was a way to bring others who have great influence into conversations of the possible,” said Cahoon. Gray said that the trip “sparked loads of creativity, such that our work on the downslope was to sort through all the ideas that were generated and figure out what the next steps were; we were just popping with ideas!”
The NetVUE Campus Visit Program is a unique opportunity. Unlike a consulting model, this program uses the wisdom within the membership itself. There is no facilitator or convener; instead, institutions seeking to learn something new can go and see how a campus is advancing ideas in real time and in real contexts. Further, this program embodies NetVUE’s goal to serve as a network; relationships are formed as ideas are shared, and long-term dialogues help create the momentum for campuses asking similar questions. Whichever side of the visit you are on, you will find rich ideas and relationships.
What questions are you asking? Consider connecting with NetVUE to identify other schools asking the same questions and learn which institutions might have some insight. Apply and go and see for yourself!