Elon University Charts a New Course

By Connell, Christopher | International Educator, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview
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Elon University Charts a New Course


Connell, Christopher, International Educator


ELON UNIVERSITY has gone on an extraordinary journey in the past 15 years, transforming itself from a regional college into a comprehensive university with a national presence that receives far more applicants than it can accept from across the country. The beautiful 575-acre campus near Burlington, North Carolina, with dogwoods, magnolias, cherries, redbuds, and oaks-Elon means oak in Hebrew-is designated a botanical garden, and Elon has mastered the knack of building in a Georgian style that makes new dorms and classroom edifices look like they have been nestled in those trees for eons.

Adding to the curbside appeal is Elon's reputation as an institution where students become deeply engaged in community service, and where a large majority studies abroad. So deeply is education abroad engrained in the culture at Elon that even the custodial and administrative staff have the opportunity to see London in January, when the flats reserved for Elon students in the fall and spring would otherwise be empty.

Elon provides each student-and, if they so request, prospective employers and graduate schools-not only course grades, but a second, formal transcript on their participation in five "Elon Experiences," namely: leadership, service, internships, education abroad, and undergraduate research. Elon cemented its reputation for civic engagement by perennially emerging among the high scorers on the National Survey of Student Engagement. Elon also was one of the 10 original campuses that embraced Project Pericles, a national effort to promote good citizenship under the aegis of philanthropist Eugene Lang and his foundation. Not only did 71 percent of the Class of 2007 study abroad, but 80 percent completed an internship and 91 percent engaged in volunteer service.

Elon engineered its rise with strong administrative and faculty leadership, a passion for strategic planning, and a knack for stretching limited dollars. (These gains have not gone unnoticed: a 2004 book authored by George Keller from Johns Hopkins University Press, Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College's Strategic Climb to National Distinction, examines Elon's rise to a top regional university.) Elon is a place that prides itself on congeniality, down to the "College Coffee" on Tuesday mornings when classes and work stop for 40 minutes while students, faculty, and staff gather outside the main campus building for coffee, donuts, and conversation. Faculty have embraced study abroad with gusto. Each year, more than 50 faculty members lead education abroad programs, most on short-term courses offered in the winter and summer. A Study Abroad Committee, a standing committee of faculty that includes two student members, passes judgment on each program, and faculty say their participation in education abroad, including not only course development and teaching but scholarship as well, is valued as a critical part of their professional development.

Clearly, international studies and global awareness have played a large role in the creation of this new Elon. "Two or three decades ago Elon served first-generation college students," says President Leo M. Lambert. Today, 80 percent of the parents are college graduates and more than a third boast graduate degrees as well. "These parents are aware how small the world is getting and how important it is for their student to experience that world more broadly through their Elon education," adds Lambert.

Lambert's predecessor, J. Fred Young, president from 1973 through 1998, set the institution on this course and nurtured its education abroad programs. Young, a former school superintendent, created an organization that continues to place teachers from other countries in North Carolina public schools. He personally recruited one of those exchange teachers, Sylvia Muñoz of San Jose, Costa Rica, to come to Elon to open El Centro de Español-the Spanish Center-to provide Spanish language and cultural lessons in an informal setting to students, faculty, and staff alike.

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