The JMU Student Body: A Mosaic of Uniqueness

Mark J. Warner

Vice President of Student Affairs

Jeans and a T-shirt. Khakis and a tie. Purple hair.

Baseball caps (worn backwards of course).

Eye rings, tongue rings, nose rings.

Long hair. Buzz cuts. Dreadlocks.

Long skirts. Mini skirts. Sweat pants.

The JMU student body is a mosaic of uniqueness. This characteristic is one common ingredient of our students, In fact, the synergistic effect of the combined individuality of our students is what makes JMU an incredible learning culture.

When I was initially asked to write about "today's students," I was told that it was because I have a multifaceted perspective of the JMU student due to the many hats I have worn during my tenure at Madison. I was a JMU student, I have been a full-time faculty member, I have served in numerous roles on campus, and I am currently vice president of student affairs and a professor of health sciences. I've been watching JMU evolve for 25 years.

As I reflected upon the question, "Who is the JMU student of today?" several approaches came to mind that I could use to explore the issue. I could begin by saying that these students grew up in an era marked by Game Boys, VCRs, Legos and Transformers. Or I could compare and contrast our students with theories about Generation X, Y or Z. Or a third tactic could be to share JMU's own survey information and highlight the results. However, I decided to that to take any of these approaches would not be doing our students justice. If I default to assigning students labels based on a set of numbers, I feel I am stripping them of the greatest gifts they share with the JMU community — their uniqueness.

Part of my rationale for taking a different approach is that I've never appreciated being categorized. I was never a "typical" psychology student, I have never been a "typical" professor, and I'm not a "typical" vice president. The fact of the matter is that I don't even know what "typical" looks like. To make broad brush generalizations about our students would not accurately portray their stories, their experiences and their lives.

So now you know my bias — I don't see any "typical" students. The JMU community is a kaleidoscope reflecting differences and similarities in a perpetually changing environment. The result is a vibrant living-learning culture. One of the most effective ways to demonstrate who the students of today are is to simply share some snippets about our students and the environments in which they learn.

She walks into a smoke filled hut; the dirt path is lined with tropical plants. It's more than 90 degrees in this Honduran mountain village. She witnesses firsthand that Honduras is the poorest country in Central America. Her JMU colleagues have joined her to participate in this international health class. She adeptly combines her Spanish minor and her health sciences major to work in another part of the globe. Upon entering the hut, she and her companions greet a three-generation family. After initial pleasantries, she asks them a series of questions as part of a health research project. The grandfather answers most of the questons, wheezing intermittently. He is a victim of emphysema, which is only exacerbated by the smoke permeating the small dirt-floored room. The fire is essential in that it is the primary source of light and is used to cook every meal. The whole adventure transcended her class experiences and gave her a glimpse of the stark realities of another culture. Thus her classroom learning was transformed into a depth of understanding and learning that was priceless.

It's 2 a.m. in Showker Hall. Although the city of Harrisonburg is sleeping, the College of Business building is buzzing with students, either working together in project groups or individually studying for a morning exam. Some won't catch any formal sleep, although heads might rest once or twice against the pages of a book. Unfortunately osmosis won't work in this case. These students take their work seriously. Some students are putting together the finishing touches on their studying, while others might be doing last minute cramming. Sound familiar? Regardless, doing well is the bottom line for most.

The line stretches from the doors of Wilson Hall and more than halfway down the middle of the Quad. Excitement fills the air. Passersby ask what is going on tonight, their curiosity aroused by this line of humanity. Students, faculty and staff are waiting to see "Hurricane" Carter, who will be speaking tonight. The new movie about his life has recently been released and now members of the JMU community will be able to hear his story — live. Demand is so great that satellite locations had to be set up. On this night these people have an opportunity "connect" with a piece of history. By the time this evening ends, the audience will leave with minds nudged, eyes opened and souls stirred.

She is one of a myriad of students who daily walk through the University Recreation Center's doors. She puts on her weight-lifting gloves and begins her circuit. She addresses each machine with determination. The results of her visits have inspired her to continue — and she does so with rigor. Her major is biology and the exercise serves as a release from her challenging course work. Her goal is to get into graduate school and study microbiology. Between machines she talks and laughs with familiar faces. (UREC also gives her a "social fix" for the afternoon.) She wipes the sweat from her brow, finishes her workout with a set of crunches and leaves with the satisfaction of another day of exercise completed. She also has created a lifetime habit of exercising to nurture her physical temple.

"Teach," a senior and president of the Asian Student Organization, sits at a round table with several international students at the campus hangout known as Taylor Down Under. The sounds of pool balls clacking against each other provide the backdrop to this study group. Teach, as his name implies, is doing his "educator thing." He's unselfishly helping his peers, ignoring his own work, so that his peers will be successful. Teach's work will get finished at another time, another place, another hour. One more student rounds the corner and looks toward Teach's table. Teach instantly signals for the person to come and join them. Ahh! Teach reflects to himself. Another pupil. His rich smile once again seems to radiate throughout the room.

She sits in class, patches on her jeans and a red bandanna in her long coal black hair. The professor sees her mind churning as he begins the provocative discussion about leadership and power. Her thoughtful questions prompt insights that move to depths of understanding far beyond the superficial discourse that characterizes much of her day. She's serious about creating her life, and she continually demonstrates an unquenchable thirst for learning. Her goals are clear. Upon graduation she will be unselfishly giving of herself by working with Americorps for a year, then off to medical school. She'll make an incredible physician.

The learning partnerships that have been created — inside and outside of the classroom — have enabled these students to explore new territories, enrich their experience base and enhance their uniqueness.

This blending of uniqueness with a rich learning arena prepares the students:

...for their first job — but also for a lifetime of jobs. live as an independent individual — but also to live successfully as a citizen in an interdependent world. grasp the sheepskin on graduation day — but also to have a passion for lifelong learning. crystallize a knowledge of self — but also to appreciate the differences found in others.

Our students take their uniqueness and transform society — whether as financiers on Wall Street or graduate students or as teachers or community volunteers. The JMU experience provides students the opportunity to invent themselves. They come with a desire for learning and discovery, and they leave with the ability to make a difference in their own lives and to touch the lives of others. With students like these, our future is bright!