Reprinted with permission from Charisma, January 2012. Copyright Charisma Media, USA. All rights reserved. www.charismamag.com
Small schools can make a big difference in everything from community to spiritual formation
Starting college for the first time can be both an exciting and scary experience. Facing the unknown that is ahead brings many thoughts and emotions to the surface. When I headed off to college years ago, I left my home in Baltimore and ventured several states away to Georgia. Not only was I experiencing the normal apprehensions of a first-year college student, but I was also leaving a fairly large city and high school and moving to a small college in a rural setting in Franklin Springs, Ga.
Emmanuel College is a small, Christ-centered college that, at the time, was smaller than my graduating class in high school. Looking back, the size of the college fit me perfectly; it offered outstanding advantages that are not easily found at large institutions.
My life was changed. Little did I realize that exactly 30 years later, I would return as the eighth president of the college. Even though the college has grown since then, it still offers the enduring values I found 30 years ago.
Small class size. Many times, incoming freshmen find the introduction to college academic work more challenging and demanding than their high school experience. They face schedules that aren’t always laid out in neat blocks and subjects that are more rigorous. The smaller college has the advantage of smaller class sizes and low student-to-teacher ratios. One student in a large public institution reported that his freshmen English class had more than 400 students and was taught by a teaching assistant rather than the professor of record.
Class sizes of 20 or less are common in smaller schools, providing a better opportunity for personal attention and assistance with the course work. These smaller class sizes underscore to the student that he or she isn’t merely a number, but a person of great worth. Individual guidance is a wonderful benefit found in a smaller college.
Teachers who mentor. Another positive aspect in a smaller college is the direct access to instructors. Some of my professors in college are still good friends and confidants to this day. Due to smaller class sizes, the teachers know students’ names and many times what is going on in their lives. A student is able to receive hands-on learning guided by a caring teacher. The model isn’t one of the instructor imparting wisdom from on high, but rather a mentor who joins one in the exploration and journey of learning.
Sense of community. For many students, finding a sense of true community is an added benefit in a smaller college. The personal connectedness makes the college more like a family. In this setting, we share our lives together and build relationships that will last forever. Students learn life lessons such as the need for conflict resolution, open communication, respect for others and personal responsibility. Living life together brings with it mutual accountability and opportunities for personal growth.
Whether it’s sharing meals together, living in a residence hall, being teammates in an intramural competition or serving on a ministry team, a bond develops. Sometimes that bond can last a lifetime. I still stay in touch with many of the guys that lived with me in a residence hall. We shared our hopes and dreams; we played together; we worshipped together and prayed for each other in times of trouble; we studied together; we even teased each other. We were building a bond of family without realizing what was happening.
Spiritual integration. Maybe the strongest and most enduring quality of a smaller college is spiritual. There are formal programmatic designs for spiritual formation, but there are also many teachable moments that occur day by day.
Looking back, I still remember some of the talks given and special moments of insight during chapel services. There are also dorm prayer meetings, Bible studies and accountability groups that are designed for one’s growth. Spiritual integration happens inside and outside the classroom.
Can these things happen in larger colleges and universities? Yes, of course. But the smaller Christ-centered college is well-designed to foster and maximize these qualities in unique ways. The size alone brings everyone together as a family. We live, learn and grow together. A small college can make a big difference.
Michael S. Stewart, D.Min., has been president of Emmanuel College since 2005. He and his wife, Pam, have two sons.