Transforming Young Lives in a Cynical Age

May 16, 2013 | Updated Jul 16, 2013

Amid all the hand-wringing and soul-searching that higher education is going through about the value and the cost of a liberal arts education, we lose sight of one fundamental truth - it changes lives. For the better.

It makes young people think in new and different ways. It can be, quite simply, a transformative experience, and every year at commencement I see evidence of that when our students go out into the so-called "real world."

They are much different people from when they arrived on campus, and in my idealistic sort of way -- perhaps as a vestige of the 1960s -- I like to think they will make the world a better place. No, I'm convinced they will make the world a better place, and ultimately that hackneyed hope should be the goal of a liberal arts education: making the world a better place at the spot where your career lands you.

Almost 160 years ago, John Henry Newman in his work, "The Idea of a University," observed: "If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society. ... It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant."

Some 160 years later, the world is a much different place, but that goal is as relevant now as it was then. And a liberal arts education succeeds in doing that. I have seen proof. Let me share it with you.

For nine years, nursing student Alison Cubbellotti battled a rare liver disease called "primary sclerosing cholangitis" or PSC. After her brother, who was the perfect match for a transplant, was eliminated because of potential liver problems, Alison needed to find another donor. An anonymous Sacred Heart University student offered his liver for transplant. He was later identified as John Vales, who will forever remain Ali's Angel. After her surgery, the Edgerton Center held the "Ali's Angels" benefit concert to raise money and awareness for PSC. Stories like that aren't as rare as they may seem.

Olivia Durning works as a graduate student in the physical therapy program at Sacred Heart. As a Habitat for Humanity e-board member and trip participant for four years, Olivia has helped provide families with homes. When she entered graduate school, she wanted to continue this work outside of the United States. At that time, she decided to combine her love for physical therapy with her commitment to service, participating in a trip to Guatemala with a group of peers. Once there, she worked as a student physical therapist to provide a better quality of life for dozens of people.

While at SHU, Mike Fazzino, who graduated magna cum laude in 2010 with a dual major of political science and business administration, founded the SHU Thrift Store. The award-winning non-profit sustainability project eliminated waste and provided cost-effective solutions for low-income residents in the Greater Bridgeport community. He built the store from the ground up and managed all operations, including scheduling, maintenance and management of nine employees. He also started SHU's ONE Campus chapter, turning it into one of the most successful in the nation.

Today, Mike is working for ONE, which is a grassroots campaign and advocacy organization backed by more than 3 million people who are committed to fighting extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. Co-founded by singer Bono of the band U2 and other campaigners, ONE works closely with African policy-makers and activists.

After traveling to Rwanda with ONE in the summer of 2010, Mike was hired as the ONE Campus Challenge coordinator, effectively charged with running the program that he had participated in for so long. In 2012, he was promoted to special assistant to the U.S. executive director and today, he has a new role as the U.S. Campaigns and Special Projects Manager at ONE.

One thing is certain: Young people who develop character and values during their college education understand that a liberal arts degree means more than a higher paying job. It is a passport to a different type of life. And along the way, they help others and make the world a better place. If that sounds like a trite goal, a remnant from the 1960s, believe me, it's not, because I see evidence of it every day.