The beauty of the liberal arts, says Dean Gregor Thuswaldner, is “exposing students to many things they didn’t know existed.” The College of Arts and Sciences also ensures students prepare for life after North Park. In a recent talk with the North Parker, Thuswaldner describes the College’s commitment to campus and city learning, student-centered experiences, and focus on flexible skill sets for lifelong success.
NORTH PARKER: What’s distinctive about the College of Arts and Sciences at North Park?
DEAN GREGOR THUSWALDNER: Location, location, location. To be in the middle of Chicago is exceptional. Our campus is a nexus where students can learn, study, and relax. And they also have access to Chicago’s world-class facilities and experiences, thanks to our innovative Catalyst 606_ _ program. North Park and our College offer a fantastic combination of campus and city learning.
A very visible distinction for our College is at the heart of campus: the Johnson Center for Science and Community Life with state-of-the-art labs and classrooms, and beautiful, inviting spaces for students to gather. This facility offers our students so much.
Our faculty is student-centered and always available to work with and support our students. Opportunities for research collaborations between students and faculty are outstanding. The North Park Research Experience for Summer Students (NPRESS) program is a great example of a mentor-mentee model, enabling students to do hands-on research side-by-side with faculty.
Faith at North Park is essential. We are Christian, and we are very hospitable to students from all faiths and all walks of life. No one is taken for granted here. We are in constant and rich dialogue with one another, even when we disagree. North Park is intercultural and interfaith, and this is important, especially in today’s world.
We also think about life after North Park for our students. That’s why we put a strong emphasis on experiential and civic learning.It’s vital that students have real experiences that can enrich them both professionally and personally—and prepare them for the future.
NP: What do you say to students and parents who ask: What’s a liberal arts education good for? How is it relevant to today’s world?
GT: It’s important to know what employers look for in graduates and future employees. And their list has not changed in recent years: Still at the top are communication skills, critical-thinking skills, the ability to work in teams. This is exactly what a liberal arts education can provide: transferable skills.
Things are changing so rapidly. So, you need a strong skill set to adapt well. If you focus only on specific job preparation, that job may not be there in the future. In fact, today’s college graduates will change jobs an average of four times before age 30. In order to succeed, you need to be flexible with skills that can move with you.
We’ve invited business leaders to speak with our students, and their advice is that students who do well in any major can do well in the workplace. We also know that Silicon Valley employers hire liberal arts majors because they can think outside the box to bring a fresh perspective to problems and connect the dots in different ways.
Our added advantage as a Christian university is that we also focus on ethical questions that help to build character. This is important for our students as they become employees and leaders.
We have a great track record: We don’t create unemployable graduates.
NP: What do today’s CAS students expect from their North Park education?
GT: When students come in, they don’t always know what they want to do. But that’s the beauty of the liberal arts, which expose students to many things they didn’t know existed. Students are on a journey to discover themselves. Our job is to provide diverse opportunities to show them how they can best use their talents.
It’s important to see how the classroom connects with the rest of life. Classes aren’t something to just check off. Our professors help to connect lessons to real life. That’s why programs like Catalyst 606_ _ are so vital to teaching students through experiences outside the classroom.
For instance, a recent Catalyst experience took sociology students to Chicago’s South Side where they interviewed both former gang members and community leaders. Confronted with real challenges in different communities, the students’ perspectives changed and they started relating what they learned to what’s really happening. This happens with many other Catalyst experiences, which offer a range of opportunities for our students from visiting the Chicago Board of Trade to learning on-site at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the Mesulam Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
NP: North Park seeks to be the foremost city-centered university: How is the College supporting this goal?
GT: Our College and the entire University are truly pioneers in bringing about the Catalyst program and our commitment to actively using Chicago as our classroom.
Making Catalyst possible required usto radically revamp the curriculum campus-wide to free up Wednesday afternoons from scheduled classes. As a result, students can get out into the city for a wide range of experiences. Or they can participate in Catalyst programs on campus to hear from community and business leaders who speak to the value of a liberal arts education.
I’ve been at many academic conferences across the country, and other schools and deans are surprised by what we’ve done— and how quickly. Duke University tried to change its undergraduate curriculum, which took several years of planning. And when the new curriculum was proposed to the faculty, it was voted down. It took us two years and the faculty approved it. We hoped for 15 classes in the Catalyst program, and because of the enthusiasm among our faculty, we have more than 100 this year.
NP: What else sets apart the faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences?
GT: Our faculty members reflect the North Park ethos. Their focus is always God’s glory and neighbor’s good. We are committed to preparing students for lives of significance and service: It’s in the DNA of this school.
We have many faculty members who truly stand out for their innovative teaching, scholarship, and research to benefit our students. For instance, Dr. Peter St. Jean, professor of sociology and criminal justice, is the founder of a new field of study called peaceology. He and his students explore ways of making peace profitable and an asset for communities to counter what is an industry of violence, drugs, weapons, and so on. He’s established a Peace Lab in Magnuson Center that promotes research and applied Christian faith.
Dr. Stephen Ray, assistant professor of physics and engineering, and director of sustainability, spearheads our mechanical engineering program.
These are just a few. We are fortunate to have so many excellent, talented faculty members in this College.
NP: How does being a Christian university contribute to a liberal arts education at North Park?
GT: It’s a huge plus. We are part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, but we also have faculty and staff who are Orthodox, Catholic, Pietist, Lutheran, on and on. This is an extremely rich asset. Many traditions are represented at North Park University. Students here don’t feel indoctrinated. They know their classes are informed by faith, and they appreciate it. They value the faith environment as very diverse and where there can be open dialogue. Students feel free to explore their faith and they really grow in this open-minded atmosphere.
NP: What’s ahead for the College of Arts and Sciences?
GT: In terms of academic programs, we are looking at a possible urban studies interdisciplinary major. We have many advantages in this area already: Our provost, Dr. Michael Emerson, is one of the country’s leading urban sociologists, and we offer many courses on urban health, environmental issues, and more. Designing this program can draw on so many of our strengths. I am eager for more collaborations between the Seminary and our schools at North Park. For instance, medical humanities can enable a student who wants to go into medicine or nursing to gain different and richer perspectives by also studying history. In the future, it will be even more vital for our students to be able to gather insights from other fields to think differently about problems we’re facing.
We’ve just created a College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Board that will convene in September. The board members are alumni who will help us find new ways to enhance the mission and vision of the College. I anticipate they will assist our faculty and students, helping them to network and branch out to meet and learn from others. We’ll benefit from alumni advice about our curriculum and about majors we should think about offering.
I’m proud of our dedicated faculty and administrators here and across the campus who share mutual trust and a common vision. This is not always the case at many schools. We are very fortunate.