360 Degrees Around the Student

A holistic look at the liberal arts

If someone asks you what a liberal arts education is, what do you say? How do you define something so complex?

For Micheal Stratton, chair and unit head for the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and associate professor of management at UNC Asheville, it’s about exploration. “Students and faculty are driven to explore and uncover the complexity inherent to human existence in a variety of social, political, economic, historical, and organizational contexts,” Stratton says. “It’s a multi-interdisciplinary approach to the identification and analysis of complex problems leveraging multiple and sometimes competing perspectives.” For others, like Student Body President Tim Hussey, it takes on a more personal meaning. “To me, a liberal arts education means seeing beyond single perspectives and thinking about situations holistically,” Hussey says. “At UNCA, the liberal arts education has played a crucial role in deciding what career path I want to take. I originally came in with a set idea of what I wanted to do after graduation, but by exploring not only my major, but classes across all disciplines, I was able to recognize and cultivate other skills that I hope to use to make the world a better place.”

“To me, a liberal arts education means seeing beyond single perspectives and thinking about situations holistically.” —Tim Hussey ’18, Student Body President

Both these definitions hold similar fundamental values, ones that Senior Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Steve McKellips says contribute to UNC Asheville’s unique student-centered approach. “It really concentrates our energies on 360 degrees around a particular student,” McKellips says. “It uses this interdisciplinary approach to teach people content, but also teach people about learning in general, in particular, how you learn, or to demonstrate how other people learn.”

Still, even after describing what a liberal arts education means, how do you show what it looks like?

UNC Asheville alumnus Austin Napper says his liberal arts education has helped him become more flexible, something that comes in handy in the workplace. Napper currently works with the Asheville City Schools Foundation as a communications associate, where he helps with a new initiative called “The Listening Project.” The project assembles more than 20 community members and district staff that will take an in-depth, year-long look into student perceptions about the culture at Asheville High School and School of Inquiry & Life Sciences at Asheville (SILSA). Volunteers do this by listening to 100 students, taking their input and creating an action plan to address issues of inequality that will be implemented next fall. Napper calls the project “a community effort to identify and address the challenges facing high school students today.”

On campus, students from the Health and Wellness Department have worked on several research-for-advocacy projects, meaning they have created surveys, collected data, and done research for community-based groups, helping further policies and advocacy. Ameena Batada, an associate professor in the Health and Wellness Department, says projects like these incorporate various skills that expand across departments. “It’s not just about our individual discipline, it’s about bringing together urban planning, political science, even mass media,” Batada points out.

Batada presented information on three different student research-for-advocacy projects at the Gulf South Summit in March of 2017. One group partnered with the Voices Transportation Committee of Just Economics in order to extend bus route end times in Asheville. Another group of students partnered with the Homeless Initiative Advisory Council (HIAC), creating surveys for some Asheville shelters in order to help HIAC with their five-year strategic plan. The third group partnered with the Henderson County Department of Health, collecting data from Henderson County stores on tobacco marketing in order to advocate for a county-level resolution to request that the state end the pre-emption related to tobacco marketing and sales, a policy Batada says passed surprisingly fast by the Henderson County Board of Health.

“We value working across sectors, across disciplines, and breaking down the silos... eliminating an isolation factor that can come from not understanding another point of view.” —Micheal Stratton, chair and unit head for the AACSB and associate professor of management at UNC Asheville

For Batada, a liberal arts education is learning how to confront issues in different ways. She says her students have pursued a wide variety of careers, including those in public health, international studies, and specialized medical fields. “I think their liberal arts background will always be beneficial in those careers because those students will be the ones who will revolutionize how we think about medicine and health by using a broader view,” Batada says.

Stratton sees those connections happening across disciplines. “My view of what we’re doing as a liberal arts college is that we value working across sectors, across disciplines, and breaking down the silos... eliminating an isolation factor that can come from not understanding another point of view.”

McKellips says this critical thinking is the foundation of UNC Asheville and what it reflects in each department. “When everything about this place is actually driven by the values that are articulated in the mission, it’s really easy to see the mission at work in what I would describe as grassroots behaviors; it’s in the weeds.”

"The opportunity that students get to discover multiple disciplines and to find a place in a world of conversation rather than in a narrow specialization really matters." — Karin Peterson, chair and professor of sociologyAs Mahmut Reyhanoglu, chair and professor of engineering, points out, this interdisciplinary approach is exactly what’s in the weeds at UNC Asheville. “The mechatronics program in itself is unique in the sense that it blends mechanical engineering with electrical engineering in a very nice way,” Reyhanoglu says. “The students learn both mechanical engineering aspects and electrical engineering aspects. Hence, they are highly employable. It’s not very easy to find engineers that could do both, who could wear both hats.”

He also stresses how interdisciplinary classes, such as diversity intensives, help students engage and connect outside of their own major, something that helps build interpersonal skills. “Your resume could be highly shiny, you could have so many things accomplished, but if you are not able to present yourself, express yourself, you are not going to get anywhere,” he says.

Karin Peterson, chair and professor of sociology, echoes this sentiment on the importance of interdisciplinary methods. She has some of her classes work on projects with students in the Health and Wellness Department and makes sure to use a diverse range of reading materials in her classes, from African-American to Australian authors, stressing the value of different perspectives. “In having multiple lenses, you are not always at the center of each of those lenses, someone else is closer to the center of some of those lenses,” Peterson says. “It inevitably involves dialogue with people who are different from you and listening skills that involve appreciating difference.”

This holistic approach is also reflected in UNC Asheville’s admissions process, where applications are reviewed and considered by counselors rather than just through a computer system. However, McKellips says the admissions process starts even before the application is sent in. It starts when a student is considering UNC Asheville, as they develop a personal relationship with recruiters here, and begin to understand what a liberal arts education means. McKellips says this is part of UNC Asheville’s 360 degrees around a student.

Peterson says this student-centered approach creates accessibility, something not always readily available to everyone in other places. This, she says, is an essential part of UNC Asheville’s liberal arts education. “We have so many students who work, and who have families already; we have students who are first-generation college students,” Peterson says. “So the opportunity that students get to discover multiple disciplines and to find a place in a world of conversation rather than in a narrow specialization really matters.”