Preaching to the Humanities Choir

Members of the Pi Omicron Chapter at the Community College of Rhode Island recently got a pretty big opportunity: they were invited to give a presentation at the Community College Humanities Association’s 2016 Eastern Division Conference.

Four chapter officers talked to community college humanities instructors in a panel discussion on the humanities’ role in student success. The students wove in their personal stories as well as how Phi Theta Kappa’s programs like Honors in Action help keep the humanities alive.

“I wanted them to talk about how valuable these courses are to students, regardless of their plans after college,” said chapter advisor Laurie Sherman, an English professor. “I thought the students were better able to speak to that than I could. I was never a community college student.”

Jesse Sullivan shared his story, which included a period of homelessness as a child. His mother was eventually able to attend Wellesley College — she was the first in his family to go to college — and she would sometimes take him to classes with her.

He remembers how much his mother’s education helped turn their lives around. And though he went straight to work after high school, he soon found his work to be more of a passion, not a career.

“Because of my mother, that kind of analytical thinking was passed on to me at an early age,” he said. “When I finally got serious about my education, I pulled from those experiences.”

Sullivan grew up in Massachusetts and started working as a gay rights activist in high school. He helped co-chair the National Day of Silence, an annual event where middle school, high school and college students take a vow of silence for a day in support of the LGBTQ community.

At 16 years old, he found himself meeting with executives at MTV to spread awareness of the movement. These experiences led him to a career as a political consultant to local, state and even national candidates and work promoting social issues.

“I felt I was already doing what I’d planned to do after college,” he said. “A lot of students fit my profile — I was good after high school. I felt I didn’t need college.

“But then I realized that what I loved about it wasn’t what I was doing anymore, so I went back to school.”

At 31, Sullivan is now focusing on psychology and philosophy. He’s never had a real passion for the humanities; but through his studies and his involvement with Phi Theta Kappa, he’s seen how humanities lessons begin in the classroom and then extend out of it.

“I wanted to create an example of how success is cumulative,” he said of his part in the presentation. “I was reveling in the opportunity to preach to the choir and get people interested.”

Sherman also saw it as an opportunity for her students to see the connection between what they’re learning in the classroom and what people in the humanities field actually do.

“It got them more invested in education and in Phi Theta Kappa,” she said.

And, the students themselves gained great confidence in preparing and then giving the presentation.

“We were practicing the things we’re learning about and then doing it in front of experts,” Sullivan said. “Having a deadline, having to meet their parameters and expectations, and then the delivery — these are such invaluable skills.”

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