The Future of Learning

Furman embarks on ambitious effort to transform the student experience while addressing community issues

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The Furman Advantage, a new initiative announced by the university Wednesday, guarantees every incoming freshman an engaged learning experience that is tracked and integrated with their academic and professional goals, giving students an educational experience that combines an intimate campus with the breadth of opportunity usually afforded by a larger university.

Students have had engaged learning opportunities since the 1990s, but The Furman Advantage takes it to the next level, Furman University President Elizabeth Davis said.

“We’re taking another step to reimagine a Furman education — one that adds value and addresses community needs,” she said.

Engaged learning is a strategy that puts skills and knowledge learned in the classroom into practice while serving the community.

The Duke Endowment has provided $47 million for The Furman Advantage, the second-largest gift in school history.

“The Duke Endowment fully supports Furman’s strategy for providing life-changing experiences for its students,” said Minor Shaw, chair of the Endowment’s board. “The grants announced today illustrate our continued commitment to the university and its ambitious vision for the future.”

Many of the opportunities will be coordinated through Furman’s growing set of public-facing institutes, such as the Richard W. Riley Institute, the David E. Shi Center for Sustainability and the newly formed Institute for the Advancement of Community Health, the school’s partnership with the Greenville Health System. Project teams focused on areas of community need aligned with Furman’s expertise will allow students to address real-world problems and help improve the community.

“We are creating a more robust and enriched model of community-centered learning, where students, faculty and community members work side by side to take on problems of real importance and find solutions,” said Angela Halfacre, professor of political science and earth and environmental sciences, previous director of the Shi Center and the special advisor to the president.

“When it comes down to the difference of money or no money, rich kids get the internships.”

 

Universities for many years have offered engaged learning opportunities — internships, mentored research and study abroad/study away programs, for example — but few, if any, guaranteed them for all students and integrated them fully with the learning experience, Davis said.

The Duke Endowment’s newest commitment of $25 million, announced Wednesday, will increase the number and quality of study away, research opportunities, internships and community-centered projects at Furman. The first $22 million fully funded the James B. Duke Scholarships that provides additional financial support to students. That gift was announced in November 2015.

With the latest installment from the endowment, Furman will be able to increase stipends paid to students with internships and research opportunities. When those opportunities are unpaid, it forces students to choose between the short-term gain of a summer job and the long-term benefit of an internship, Davis said. “When it comes down to the difference of money or no money, rich kids get the internships,” she said.

But for The Furman Advantage to work, Davis said the school needs alumni, parents and friends to engage like never before through philanthropy, hosting internships and research projects, mentoring students, hiring young graduates and networking with fellow alumni.

Davis said Furman’s institutes create opportunities students cannot get from peer schools. She said Furman is the only liberal arts university with an academic health center. The Riley Institute, named after former South Carolina governor and U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley, gives students extraordinary access to policy leaders in South Carolina and Washington, D.C.

While Furman professors have always served as mentors to students, The Furman Advantage will offer students an expanded network of faculty, staff, alumni and community members. That will provide students with a broader array of professional and academic opportunities, Halfacre said. Through self-reflection, students will get a strong sense of what’s important to them and what they’re good at doing, she said.

“It’s a way of thinking differently about the students experience,” Davis said. “It’s changing the nature of the conversation.”

Part of the Duke money will go to improving and expanding the tools Furman uses to track what students are doing to provide proof of progress and outcomes to students, parents, graduate programs and prospective employers.

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