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History grad shares the power of the liberal arts in award-winning essay

Jane Jackson (History, '14), winner of the COPLAC David J. Prior Award

A liberal arts education helps students learn to both speak for themselves as well as listen to different views of the world. So explains Jane Jackson, who graduated from Fort Lewis College in May with a bachelor's degree in History, in her award-winning essay, “Reflections on a College Experience.”

That essay (see below) earned Jackson the 2014 Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges' David J. Prior Award. The award recognizes senior-level undergraduates whose academic careers and future goals have been shaped by the transformative power of the liberal arts and sciences.

Having grown up in Wyoming and spent time exploring the American West, Jackson developed a keen interest in Western history – leading to both her History major and her senior thesis, a study of the uranium industry in Moab and its connection to the establishment of Canyonlands National Park.

But for Jackson, its FLC's liberal arts perspective that has given her the confidence to take her new skills out into the world. “My liberal arts education has helped me discover my voice. It has helped me take responsibility for my ideas and stand up for them,” Jackson writes.

“What makes this experience unique, I think, is the level of appreciation I now have for conversation,” she says. “To appreciate a good conversation is to recognize that it is not only important to assert my own opinions, but that it is arguably more important to listen to others.”

Read Jackson's full essay below.

Reflections on a College Experience
by Jane Jackson

As I reflect on my experience in college, I see an image of my 18-year-old self sitting terrified in a full classroom on the first day of an upper division Buddhist Philosophy class. I imagine that girl, who was stricken with panic when she discovered that participation was worth 30% of the course grade. I think of how it took her weeks to muster up the courage to share a comment with the class. I remember thinking for the first few months of that class that I did not belong, that the other students who were using words like “metaphysics” and “epistemology” were supposed to be there, while I was obviously not. 

Now, in my final semester of college, I have learned that I do belong. I, along with everyone else, have something to contribute to the world. I have learned that the more diverse backgrounds there are in the classroom, the richer the learning experience is for everyone. And, I’ve learned that it is that quiet kid in the back of the classroom that often stuns everyone with a single comment during the semester.

On the level of personal growth, I think that my liberal arts education has helped me discover my voice. It has helped me take responsibility for my ideas and stand up for them. This college experience has given me the opportunity to cultivate self-confidence. The most important gift this education has given me is the confidence in own ability to express my ideas and the belief that they are worth expressing at all.

This all sounds like the typical growing up story, an inevitable development that would have occurred whether I attended a public liberal arts school or not. What makes this experience unique, I think, is the level of appreciation I now have for conversation. To appreciate a good conversation is to recognize that it is not only important to assert my own opinions, but that it is arguably more important to listen to others, to build new ideas with other people, and to be open to different ways of thinking.

I see the influence of this more on my life outside the classroom than inside it. Though, without the classroom as a starting point, this would not have happened. The group of friends I have established in college has become very close; we write papers in the library together, we climb together on the weekends, cook dinner together on the weeknights, and share our successes and failures together in the way that family does. Nearly all of us will graduate with different majors: chemistry, geology, mathematics, education, Spanish, French, Environmental Studies, sociology, public health, U.S. History, and Adventure Education. I have noticed that as we have each gotten farther along in our field, our conversations have diversified; our different perspectives on particular issues have become more pronounced as we have matured.

My liberal arts education can be summed up in the image of one of the many “family dinners” we’ve had over the years. In my mind I see the chemist and the public health major explain to me the social injustice of “food deserts” in inner-city America, while the environmentalist explains a new mapping program to the aspiring elementary school teacher. At the same time, the Spanish and French students are talking about the current election with the sociologist over chopped vegetables. This is an experience unique to college because we are all so absorbed in our particular fields of study. Our young minds have been molded into viewing the world in a particular way because of the classes we have taken, the books we have read, our professors, and, of course, our experiences outside of school. It is the beauty and richness of the conversations that occur when all these perspectives come together that has made my college experience so valuable.

This diversity of thought can also be seen within my personal experience at a liberal arts school. As humans, we tend to gravitate toward the things we are good at, or where we feel most comfortable. For me, I have clung to reading and writing. Math was a battle as a child, and I tried to avoid science classes if I could. Being at a liberal arts school has forced me out of my comfort zone a bit, which, in the end, has given me a deeper understanding of the world.

I dreaded fulfilling my math requirement, and put it off until my senior year of college. The funny thing is, I ended up absolutely loving Math 113, Algebra for Calculus. I felt a shift in my own thinking as I was forced to step away from my historian’s mindset. I am always concerned with broad themes, patterns, and human behavior and, through math, was forced to reconcile a thought process that was analytical, detail oriented, and precise.

I felt this change affect other aspects of my life. I began to approach rock climbing, which has been my passion and source of sanity throughout college, with a fresh perspective and a problem-solving mindset. I began analyzing the most minute details of my body position in relation to the rock and figuring out ways to make small adjustments. This change in my thinking resulted in progress in my passions outside of school and probably would not have occurred without being required to take a math class. My own thought process, something I thought was set in stone was altered positively by what I originally thought to be a silly liberal arts requirement.

This same shift occurred in me after fulfilling my science requirements, where I took a geology class and a meteorology class. Removed from my history books and research papers, I once again felt my worldview expand. I now look at the sky and see cirrocumulus clouds and can predict a coming weather front by the clouds I observe. On weekend trips to satisfy my climbing obsession, I now see remnants of ancient seas in the layers of sedimentary rock and can spot an uplift event from miles away. It is important that we all have our specific focuses in college, and it feels good to get to a more advanced level of academia in a particular field, but it is arguably more important to get pushed out of one’s comfort zone every now and then.

In conclusion, I think that this liberal arts education I have been participating in for the past three years has shown me that the world is larger and more complicated than I could ever imagine. At the same time, it has shown me that even though the world is big, I should take responsibility for the small part of it that I inhabit. It has shown me that I have the ability to take in different views of the world and create one that is unique to me. It has shown me how to speak for myself, but most importantly it has shown me how to listen.

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