As spring arrives and the weather warms, I can feel every bit of change in the City’s pulse during my early morning runs—by the number of people out and about and even the expressions on their faces. As we enter the final stretch of the academic year and prepare for May Commencement, we also turn our thoughts to those who will soon join the class of 2026 and how we can serve them and the generations of students who will follow.
From the Battle of Lexington to Student Government to Global Engagement
Earlier this month, I cheered for our men’s volleyball team who played in the CUNY Athletic Conference (CUNYAC) tournament championship. It was my first experience with “The Battle of Lexington”—as matches against Hunter College are known. With the return of spectators, the “battle” is as much among the cheering students in the bleachers as it is among the players on the court. It was a thrilling three hours on a Friday evening, with lots of shouting, cheering, and sweating.
The Bearcats won convincingly against the Hunter Hawks in just four sets. In fact, the number of victories by our student-athletes (following the women’s tennis victory and the men’s team championships for soccer, swimming, and basketball) make the Bearcats the leading contender for the cumulative conference recognition known as the Commissioner’s Cup, far ahead of number-two Hunter.
I have appreciated the connection between the body and mind since my earlier years in college and in the navy. I often feel a special affinity for our scholar-athletes who manage to be disciplined and competitive both on and off the court. To me, it’s no accident that Baruch has the most celebrated reputation for academic excellence while consistently ranking as one of the most successful athletic programs in CUNYAC.
In an earlier blog, I talked about my keen interest in the inner workings of the human brain and have followed the wonderful advancements in modern neuroscience research. Researchers who study brain development from children to young adults discovered that brain connections continue to take shape into the late twenties, which offers us tremendous new insights as college educators. Neural science research provides ample evidence that a healthy lifestyle has a positive impact on the development of young adult brains and hence could directly impact mental health and personal well-being later in life.
Athleticism is but one means to a broader end—many other forms of engagement and interaction are just as beneficial to our students. A few days ago, I announced the election results of Baruch’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG). Standing alongside the current USG leadership team—whom I had the opportunity to know over the past year—while they passed the baton to the incoming team, I felt their excitement and sense of accomplishment. It has been a challenging year, and they did a great job providing the student body with reasons to be hopeful—from offering practical help as students transitioned back on campus to compiling a comprehensive “survival guide.” I truly believe that leadership and service build character and teach our students something they cannot learn in the classroom.
After the USG announcement, I chatted with representatives from a sample of the more than 130 student clubs at Baruch. It was clear from their enthusiasm and energy that they are fully devoted to engaging their fellow students. I could see on their faces just how important peer interaction is, and it energized me as I walked back to my office.
This spring I also hosted delegations from several acclaimed international institutions in France, Korea, England, and Egypt who sought partnership opportunities with Baruch, specifically looking for joint academic programming or establishing exchange programs. Such affiliations allow us to build on our rich international partnerships and create global experiences for our students, adding to the depth of their education. Just like athleticism, exposure to different languages, cultures, and social norms impacts the brain development of young adults and may directly influence personal well-being throughout life.
From Academic Advising to Creating Success
I recently had coffee with individuals from the Office of Undergraduate Advisement & Orientation who won the 2021 Baruch College Employee Excellence Award for Teamwork. I can only describe the interaction as heartfelt and, at the same time, enlightening. It was heartfelt because I experienced firsthand the genuine interest and passion of our student-facing staff. It was enlightening because I realized that their care, attention, and passion are the glue that actually makes it all work.
All of these encounters reminded me of a book I read this winter on the recommendation of Provost Linda Essig—Becoming a Student-Ready College. A main thesis of the book is that “higher education myths and orthodoxies” reinforce the idea that “the golden age of American higher education [is] when every student came well prepared for college.” The book goes on to say, however, that “what educators call the ‘college-ready’ student was an image and an identity that could be flipped or inverted in order to convey a powerful message. Instead of striving and struggling to make students ready for college, we could work hard, as a society and locally, on individual campuses, to make college ready for students.”
College-Ready Students or Student-Ready Colleges?
This is similar in framing to what I referred to earlier in my blog as “Institutional Isomorphism.” The very idea of seeking out “college-ready students” is still rather ingrained in American higher education—perpetuated by some of the college ranking systems. These rankings rate colleges based primarily on the input—how many “college-ready students” they can attract, rather than on the outcome—how “student-ready” a college is in preparing its graduates to succeed.
Think of the greater power education could achieve if rather than viewing “nontraditional” applicants as individuals who have shortcomings and deficits that we must overcome, we instead recognize that what they may also bring with them—life experiences, an unindoctrinated approach to conceive ideas—as assets that many of their “college-ready” peers have yet to develop.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we abandon admissions standards or stop scrutinizing academic preparation in order to ensure that a high degree of pedagogical rigor is achievable. Pragmatically, schools need some ways to assess students’ abilities to have successful academic experiences. What I am saying is that, as educators, we should challenge the mindset of seeking out those perfect “college-ready” students while excluding those who are considered “nontraditional”—often due to social and economic circumstances. I believe we can have high expectations and high standards but not at the cost of excluding a certain population.
To be sure, it is a tough balancing act. As I said previously, public confidence and trust in the value of a college degree are derived from the reputation of an academically rigorous institution—only rigorous, high-quality education truly challenges and unlocks human potential. Likewise, employers are looking to expand their recruiting base but are often wary of the quality tradeoff. Blessed by our history, I believe Baruch is in a great position to lead a new way of thinking: focusing on students’ assets and intellectual potential rather than focusing on their deficits and limitations. We can do so by setting high expectations for excellence while simultaneously providing the necessary intervention and support and by giving students the tools to achieve a high level of academic success in a way that leverages their life experiences and ability to overcome adversity, not despite of it. This is not a moral platitude but rather ideas influenced by my experience as an educator and my long-term interests in brain research.
Ability to Simulate the Future
Another one of my winter readings was The Future of the Mind by City College professor Michio Kaku, which delves into brain research on consciousness and human intelligence. One of Dr. Kaku’s bold conjectures caught my eye: “Intelligence may be viewed as the complexity of our simulations of the future.” This resonates with me as an academic working with students for more than three decades. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that human brains have an astonishing capacity to learn, adapt, imagine, and expand—all while attempting to interpret the environment and predict the future. While prior academic training has some influence on this capability, it is by no means the only determinant.
Taking this view allows us to consider a broader spectrum of possibilities of how students can be prepared for the mind-expanding experience of a college education—and their lives and careers afterward. Is it possible that students who work part time or full time while going to school can be better prepared for the intellectual challenges put in front of them? Is it possible that students who tackle family obligations and social economic hardships are better equipped with the ability to simulate the future with greater complexity? Are students better off focusing on their studies without distractions while isolated from society for four years—or are they better off juggling the complexity of work, life, athletic practices, and studying?
From the countless testimonials I have heard from Baruch alumni, I am more confident than ever that there are many different ways a brilliant mind could be shaped to thrive.
My Own Version of Getting “Student-Ready”
As the campus gradually opened up this semester, I started to experience the incredible spirit of our students. I love these interactions as they remind me of those golden years of youth that all blur into each other but left a warm glow in the back of my mind. It is an unshakable feeling of optimism and possibility, just like spring.
It also reminded me why I was drawn to academia. After a few years establishing myself as a scholar-teacher, I began creating new programs while engaging with my undergraduate advisees or master’s and doctoral students. No matter the level of students I worked with or in what capacity, I found a common thread that motivated both me and my students, and that was to find the innate capacity in them that sparkles and shines in its own unique way. I found many ways to do this over the years, often by exposing students to multiple paradigms of thinking from diverse fields of study, building upon deep-rooted disciplinary competencies while providing them with the confidence to think independently, and drawing on their own instincts and life experiences, so they were free to have their own discoveries and revelations.
In reflection, I realize these ideas simply provide the environmental setting for the mind to challenge and contemplate different ways of thinking, allowing the brain to “simulate the future” with the level of nuanced complexity and understanding that better resemble our world.
To me, that process of nurturing, cultivating, and awakening that unique capability in each individual is what education is all about.