In the midst of multiple pandemics, increasing polarization, and complex problems, higher education must reconsider its scope, expanding educational focus to approaches that enable individuals and communities to flourish.– Dr. L. Gregory Jones
Without question, hope has often been in short supply over the past several years. Around the world, communities have struggled with COVID-19, racial injustice, mental health issues, war, climate change, and economic uncertainties, as well as ideological polarization and distrust. Many of these issues have been challenging for a much longer time, and the overlapping intersections have intensified loneliness, anxiety, bitterness, anger, and even despair.
In the United States, a 2022 survey from the Pew Research Center indicated that more than 85 percent of Americans view inflation, the affordability of health care, and violent crime as “big problems” the country currently faces. Whether driven by those concerns, the impact of the worldwide pandemic, or other, unknown causes, nearly one-third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression, according to data from the Census Bureau. That number is even higher, at 35 percent, in Tennessee, where I live. These numbers reflect significant jumps over prior years, with responses to a question about depressed mood doubling since 2014.
It is difficult to sustain optimism in light of all of these circumstances, and it is even more challenging to know where to begin to make positive change. As a person of faith, I am called to hope, a belief in something greater than myself. As a leader of Nashville’s Belmont University, I want to cultivate that sense of hope in our students, faculty, and staff and inspire them to be catalysts for instilling such hope in the world around us. In fact, the theme of my inaugural year was “Let Hope Abound,” and it became such a rallying cry for our campus that, upon being introduced recently to a community member in downtown Nashville, they responded, “Oh, Belmont, you’re with those hope people.”
After 18 months serving as Belmont’s president, it’s truly one of the highest compliments I could receive. And it’s a compliment that shouldn’t be limited to Belmont. Other higher education institutions—along with organizations like hospitals, churches, and nonprofits—hold a unique space in society. They provide opportunities for people to come together and imagine a better future. They offer support and resources during difficult times and demonstrate a strong penchant for imagination and innovation. Often throughout history, it’s been these very institutions that existed at the forefront of social change.
Today’s students expect their institution of choice to both prepare them to be change-leaders and to be actively engaged in such change as well. The young people who now enter our colleges and universities come with an unwavering desire to make the world a better place. Moreover, they look to examples from their generation—names like Pakistani education advocate Malala Yousafzai and environmental activist Greta Thunberg—as proof that age and experience do not predict impact. They are ready to make a difference now.
Higher education, then, must do more than simply provide rigorous academics that prepare graduates for positive career outcomes. That is merely the baseline. We must see our students as more than “brains on sticks” and instead focus on them as complete human beings, providing them the tools and mentoring to help form their character. We must equip them with both subject matter expertise and leadership skills to enable them to cultivate hope in their communities. Finally, we must provide a global perspective—for our graduates to make an impact on the world, they must first gain an understanding of that world in all its beauty, diversity, and complexity. To enable regions to thrive, they must first bear witness to where and how our communities suffer and fall short.
At Belmont, we are actively engaging in initiatives intended to produce agents of hope who will champion a life abundant for all. To that end, we recently hosted the inaugural Hope Summit on campus, a three-day event focused on making hope real in participants’ lives, work, and communities. Centered this year on the theme “unleashing creativity and innovation so that regions can thrive,” the Summit brought together our students with renowned thought leaders, social impact investors, philanthropists, artists, entrepreneurs, and nonprofit leaders.
Josh Yates, one of the Summit’s main architects who also serves as executive director of Belmont Innovation Labs, said it well when he noted, “It’s easy to spend time learning about how best to nurture your community, but the Belmont community is interested in developing tangible hope.” Universities are overflowing with intellectual and creative capital amidst a population that desires to make a difference—we miss the mark if we don’t channel these valuable resources into tackling our communities’ problems.
A hallmark of a Belmont education is learning by doing, actively employing and developing skills in real-life, impactful work. It’s a first step in “developing tangible hope.” One great example of that comes from the Belmont Accelerator for Social Innovation Collaboration, or BASIC. Through BASIC, Belmont provides grant funding for projects initiated by faculty and staff that seek to turn the tide on complex problems in Middle Tennessee. In coordination with community partners, BASIC projects give both Belmont employees and students opportunities to learn more about our neighbors and contribute their talents to helping.
One of our first BASIC projects seeks to assist immigrant and refugee populations in nearby Antioch, Tennessee, through a partnership with nonprofit The Branch. Efforts began by engaging students in acts of service—organizing food and conducting health screenings—so they could better get to know both the nonprofit and the community it served. Then, when The Branch indicated their desire to better understand the needs of their constituents, students in finance, honors and occupational therapy joined forces to implement a survey, and more than 100 students engaged in analyzing the data. Results will help Branch leadership and BASIC participants set their strategies for the next two years.
It’s a small step. Yet here in the U.S., we know that one small step can translate into a giant leap for humankind. And these small steps must form the DNA of what modern higher education looks like: institutions devoted to creating change agents and contributing in tangible fashion to solving our communities’ most complex problems.