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Ten Years of Montserrat: Holy Cross’ First-Year Program Invites Students to Challenge, Question from Day One

The innovative program arms students with curiosity and skills instrumental to their four years at Holy Cross
January 18th, 2018 by 
Internationally renowned violinist Irina Muresanu presents on composition versus improvisation in the Jazz, Civil Rights and Hip Hop course taught by Shirish Korde, Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the music department

The sculptures of Shih Chieh Huang’s “Reusable Universe” — built from recycled Tupperware, plastic bags, fans and light bulbs — appeared to float just below the darkened ceiling of the Worcester Art Museum. They had been wired to detect motion, and on a Sunday afternoon in October, as a group of 15 Holy Cross students entered, the exhibit activated: Engines whirred, drones circled and spun, lights flickered, limbs flailed.

With necks craned, themselves seeming to float, the students spread out to observe. Some jotted notes or snapped photos. First-year student Elizabeth Keleher ’21 flopped into a beanbag chair that had been laid beneath a particularly squid-like sculpture: a series of conical plastic sheaths that swayed like tentacles in a current.

That afternoon, Keleher and the others had been instructed to look for some reflection of themselves in the art. The students were there with Neal Lipsitz, lecturer in the psychology department and associate dean for student development, who is teaching The Science of Happiness, a seminar offered as part of the Self cluster of Montserrat, Holy Cross’ first-year program. This fall, Montserrat marked its 10th anniversary; since 2007, the program has pushed boundaries, built community, and worked to cultivate intellectual curiosity in all first-year students, including those at the museum that afternoon.

As the group paused to make notes, the sculptures, detecting their inaction, deflated, drooped and darkened. Keleher and the others continued into the rest of the museum.

The Ideation of a First-Year Program

 Neal Lipsitz’s speaks in front of his class in a course titled Science of Happiness.

Associate Dean Neal Lipsitz’s Science of Happiness course is designed around self-discovery and human flourishing. Students commit to a community-based learning (CBL) component in Worcester to connect classroom learning with civic engagement. Photo by Tom Rettig

In 1992, Holy Cross introduced the First Year Program (FYP) as an optional academic endeavor as part of the first-year experience. Through thematically linked seminars, themed lectures, events and common texts, FYP invited students to reflect on the essential question of Tolstoy’s “A Confession”: “How then shall we live?” Each year, about a quarter of all incoming students opted to enroll in the two-semester program.

Stephanie Yuhl, professor of history and current director of Montserrat, served as a faculty member in FYP. “It was some of the best teaching — some of the best learning — I ever experienced,” she says. “The students were really engaged. It was a great way to develop community in a small seminar over the course of the year.”

By 2006, the administration articulated a vision to expand the First Year Program, and the College began to consider implementing a universal first-year experience.

“Creating Montserrat was so much fun — it not only highlighted the imagination and generosity of the faculty at Holy Cross who volunteered for the project, but it also demonstrated the commitment of the entire College to our students,” recalls Nancy Andrews, associate professor of classics and director of Montserrat from 2007-10. “As inaugural director, I had the privilege of working with staff from across campus. I can only speak anecdotally, but I see such profound and positive changes in our students in how they interact with other students and with us in classes and beyond.”

In 2007, the Montserrat office was established to launch a two-semester course of study in the 2008-2009 academic year. The First Year Program provided the model, and the name, Montserrat, was chosen to reflect the Jesuit ideals the program sought to instill.

“Montserrat is the place where Ignatius of Loyola experienced this transformational epiphany to lay down his sword and turn his life toward contemplation in action,” Yuhl says. “When you come to Holy Cross, it should be the beginning of a transformational experience for you.”

Andrews was succeeded by Denise Schaeffer, professor of political science, who directed the program from 2010-14. Over the years, a committee of faculty and staff members has outlined goals for students in Montserrat: to acquire, integrate and apply knowledge, to engage with core values, build intellectual maturity and a lifelong passion for learning, and to develop rhetoric and communication skills.

“These are values [that] should be part of the Holy Cross education,” Yuhl says. The new universal program arms students straightaway with the skills and curiosity that they come to rely on during their subsequent three years. Yuhl said the committee intended to “create opportunities for first-year students to encounter these [values] in really intensive and intentional ways off the bat, right from their first moments of being part of the Holy Cross campus community.”

 Stephanie Yuhl, professor of history and director of Montserrat, teaches a class outside

Stephanie Yuhl, professor of history and director of Montserrat, works with students in Professor Andrea Borghini’s course about the philosophy of food and justice on their formal debate skills. Photo by Tom Rettig

Ten years later, Montserrat comprises 36 seminars organized within six thematic clusters: Contemporary Challenges, Core Human Questions, Divine, Global Society, Natural World, and Self. Unlike the first-year seminars of many other colleges, incoming students are offered dynamic courses on topics that can diverge from and expound upon traditional 101 curricula: “Playing at Work in Art and Literature” (Core Human Questions cluster), for instance, is a visual arts course; “Competing Visions of Freedom” (Global Society cluster) offers a history credit. Incoming students select six seminars that interest them from the 36 offered and are placed in the corresponding cluster. Students of the same cluster share a residence hall and a curriculum. Over the academic year, they read some of the same texts (“All the Pretty Horses,” by Cormac McCarthy, or the essay “Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel Huntington, or “What is Islam and Why?” by Ghazi bin Muhammad), attend events and lectures together, and share a common learning experience. The result is a cohort of students who engage with the same questions from a range of perspectives.

“We’ve held on to this idea of moments of commonality so that there’s coherence and cohesion between the seminars and the cluster, but the clusters are still taught out of the dynamism of the faculty’s discipline and passion,” Yuhl says. “It creates this challenge: How do you bring a physicist, an historian, an economist, a religious studies professor and a composer together around one question? It’s an exciting dynamic to watch come to life.”

Montserrat, Yuhl explains, works best as it dismantles and “seeks to break down the boundaries and borders between student life in class and in the residence hall … It’s about creating a more integrated experience.”

Exploring Intellectual Space

 Ed Isser, professor of theatre, speaks to the students in his course, The Modernist Response

Ed Isser, professor of theatre, explicates the subversive aesthetic of poet, playwright and theatre director Bertolt Brecht to students in his course The Modernist Response. Photo by Tom Rettig

The guillotine in Edward Isser’s O’Kane office arrived as a prank in 1997 — it appeared in his production of Georg Buchner’s “Danton’s Death” — but it’s remained, at least in part, because he’s not entirely sure how to get it out. (Two ceiling tiles were removed to accommodate its height.) From a chair beside the prop, Isser, professor of theatre, explains how Montserrat challenges students and faculty alike. “Not only did Montserrat force me to rethink what it means to teach,” he says, “it made me rethink what it is that I should be thinking.”

Because Montserrat engages every first-year student, faculty must build seminars broad enough to accommodate a range of interests, but narrow enough to address each cluster theme. “I get a continuum of students,” says Isser, who taught Artists on the Borders (Core Human Questions cluster) this fall. “They all come in with a completely different set of experiences … I want to push each one individually. I want to make sure that their first intellectual encounter in college is exciting and challenging and empowering.”

Julia Paxson, associate professor of biology, taught Boundaries of Biological Self (Self cluster) this fall, and explains that the range of interests creates a very different classroom dynamic. At the beginning of the semester, Paxson had her students identify social justice issues that they feel passionate about: cancer, lead poisoning, natural disasters, genetic engineering. “Most of them are not science majors, so it can be a little bit tricky to convince them to learn about science in a meaningful way,” Paxson says. Instead, she challenged her students to see where and how developmental biology connects with the issues that they already care about. This approach, Paxson says, precludes the sort of lecture-heavy syllabus that might resonate with science majors. “Montserrat gives more room for discussion or for activities or for questions,” she says.

Montserrat embraces this type of intellectual space with events and texts that might not immediately seem related to the curriculum. In recent years, students have canoed the Quaboag River, screened films like “This Boy’s Life,” attended a concert by the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, held coffeehouses where faculty and students perform, and participated in mindfulness workshops. This fall, the Natural World cluster offered five different seminars: Wilderness and Environmentalism; Environmental Mathematics; Habitat Explorations; Science, Nature, Religion; and Writing/Reading Place, which is taught by Stephanie Reents, associate professor of English and director of the Natural World cluster. On Oct. 21, the students of each of these seminars together visited Purgatory Chasm, a 14,000-year-old rock gulch that is a state park just south of campus.

For Reents’ class, the hike was an opportunity to be present in nature, to listen and to watch. She had given them each an envelope to be opened only after the hike, which contained an assignment: Recreate a scene you’ve witnessed in the woods. The exercise was intended to challenge students’ abilities to observe. (“You can’t really write that well until you start seeing the world very clearly and noticing,” Reents says.)

Students from other classes, however, were given different assignments: Those in the Habitat Explorations class were provided with paper and pencils for sketching. Other students attended a lecture provided by Sara Mitchell, associate professor of biology and director of environmental studies, about the geology of Purgatory Chasm, which she delivered at the foot of a rock face known as Lover’s Leap.

Making Unexpected Connections

 Julia Paxson, associate professor of biology, instruct students as they write on a chalkboard during her Constructing the Biological Self course

During the fall semester of Constructing the Biological Self, students of Julia Paxson, associate professor of biology, explore mechanisms of stem cell biology that underscore select global health problems, and examine our social responsibilities in understanding and alleviating them. Photo by Tom Rettig

This sort of nuanced approach can be difficult to appreciate when in the midst of experiencing it. While faculty clearly have a mission in mind, sometimes students are perplexed, especially early in the academic year. As incoming students, their understanding of Montserrat focuses more on housing selection and scheduling. In early October, many of the first-year students are concerned about their class selections for the next semester (because the Montserrat program is two semesters, they choose only three new courses for the spring) or about what majors they should declare (students can not declare a major until the spring semester of their first year).

But any disruption is by design.

“There’s always going to be those folks that are in a hurry,” Yuhl says. “And they’re going to get there eventually. Our job is to make room for them to slow down, to have this intensive, focused experience, with rigor, but also encourage them to reflect on who they are as a person. In that way, Montserrat’s approach is very aligned with Jesuit and liberal arts pedagogy.”

And if, by early October, first-year students can’t yet appreciate this approach, speak to those even one year removed and the value and interest is immediately articulated.

Olivia Ferrick ’20, of Kennebunk, Maine, volunteered at an adult refugee ESL class in Worcester as part of her Montserrat seminar, Identity, Diversity, and Community (Divine cluster). The program, Ferrick said, pushed her to, “step outside of my comfort zone and form relationships with people I may not have otherwise.” As a sophomore, she elected to return to the same community center to tutor grade school students. “It actually became a great experience,” she says of her year in Montserrat. “I became close with some of the refugees I worked with.”

Another sophomore, Riley Benner ’20, came to Holy Cross to study economics. As a high school student, he’d run a company called Phoenix Haberdashery, which manufactured reversible ties made by refugees. He assumed that studying economics would be the fastest way into a career in business.

“I came in thinking that I was going to be an econ major, and to be honest, I didn’t really enjoy it,” Benner says. He approached his Montserrat professor, Kolleen Rask of the economics department, and she encouraged him to pursue his other interests. Then, at a mandatory cluster event, a panel of refugees spoke about their journeys into the United States. Benner felt inspired. “Behind every person who wants to come here is a challenge and an incredible story of someone who wants to start again,” Benner says. “As the refugees talked, I decided I wanted to start my company up again.”

He chose to pursue political science as a major, and he’s relaunched Phoenix Haberdashery by hiring refugees who live in Worcester, whom he refers to as partners.

For Isser, these transformations typify the Montserrat experience. “I’ve had kids sit on this couch and tell me not only that they’re going to be a doctor; they tell me their specialization,” he says, recalling first-year students he’s advised. “That’s the kid I want in Montserrat.”

Isser continues: “He may turn out to be a doctor and a surgeon, just like he thought … but I’m going to hope to God he’s going to be transformed by his time here, and that he’s going to be a fundamentally different kind of doctor than he would have been if he went anywhere else.”

The goal, Isser says, is to help students find a passion. And to do so, Montserrat offers two semesters of guided exploration through a program that’s at once rigorous, supportive, focused and open-ended.

 Stephenie Chaudoir listens to a student offering thoughts to her classmates during Chaudoir’s The Arc of Social Injustice course

Professor Stephenie Chaudoir’s The Arc of Social Injustice course explores how social injustice based on race, gender and sexual identity is created, maintained and mitigated through the actions of individuals and groups. Photo by Tom Rettig

On that Sunday in October, the students wandered the museum with their notebooks and their phones and observed. Later in the week, Professor Virginia Raguin of the visual arts department was scheduled to visit the class and provide historical and critical context about the pieces they had identified. Then, they would write a paper.

Late in the afternoon, Keleher paused to consider “O Paraiso,” a painting by the Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes.

“I was drawn to the colors and shapes,” she says. “But I like how the smudges don’t hurt the piece.” She gestures toward a cluster of seemingly imperfect brushstrokes amidst floral patterns and red and white orbs. “They aren’t seen as a mistake.”

Keleher made a note in her book, and then she proceeded to explore the next canvas.

Web Exclusive

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Written by Christopher Amenta ’06 for the Winter 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit magazine.holycross.edu/about to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.

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