New Century College students and alumni are just about everywhere. Sitting on stage behind a presidential candidate. Chatting with a Supreme Court justice. Talking to a reporter about conservation research. Leading the fight for human rights and social justice.
The visibility of the New Century College community has much to do with its emphasis on crossing disciplines and experiential learning. According to Mason professor John O’Connor, the college’s founding dean, it was all part of the program’s initial design.
“The idea was to see education as more than a collection of classes,” O’Connor says.
What Is Past Is Prologue
New Century College, or NCC as it is known on campus, was Mason’s response to the 1990 Case for Change report from the Virginia General Assembly-appointed Commission on the University of the 21st Century. Then-governor Gerald Baliles charged the commission with developing a vision for the commonwealth’s higher education system that would meet changing workforce needs at the turn of the century.
O’Connor says that various public universities had different takes on the mandate, with Mason seeking to invent what was termed a “zero-based curriculum.” Through the initiative, Mason faculty sought to discover what undergraduate curriculum might look like if starting from zero. It was a two-year process of brown-bag lunches, colloquia, and visits to other universities doing experimental or alternative education programs and included close to 100 people on campus, as well as corporate partners. In the end, the bones of NCC and the Integrative Studies major were formed.
“We coalesced around the idea of a more pragmatic liberal arts, a liberal arts education that would get you a job,” he says.
The curriculum was designed to cross disciplines and offer real-world experience. The college sought to bring faculty from different departments together to look at subjects with an emphasis on getting students out of the classroom.
With the program’s different course structure—some classes were 6 or 9 credits, some were six or eight weeks long—it took a great deal of collaboration to make the courses work in the overall university academic structure and recruit students to be a part of the uncharted new program. In the end, O’Connor says support grew for the program because it filled an important void for nontraditional learners, those who sought a more challenging academic experience. The program quickly took off through word-of-mouth, as well as some heavy admissions-fair marketing.
Those early students turned out to be leaders, another great marketing point for NCC. Over the years, many NCC students have headed student government, student media, and student life organizations.
“We hadn’t thought of it as a leadership program, but one of the common studies on coterie education—where you bring people together and keep them together—is that you develop leaders,” O’Connor says. “That’s, very strikingly, what happened.”
However, not everyone was sold on NCC in the early days. With a substantial amount of time and credits allocated to outside-the-classroom learning, questions arose about the program’s rigor. The political climate in Virginia at the time didn’t help matters, with liberal arts programs at universities across the commonwealth under scrutiny.
In the end, O’Connor says faculty, students, parents, and members of the local business community came together to advocate for the program and vouch for its value, including writing letters to Mason’s Board of Visitors. NCC survived and, in 2000, merged with what was then the College of Arts and Sciences.
Since the early years, with the support of university administrators, the college has evolved to meet the changing needs of students and expanded its reach across campus. NCC’s academic programs continue to address students’ career aspirations, now including concentrations in conservation studies, elementary education, social justice, and international studies. NCC’s first-year program, originally developed as a cohort-style introduction to college for its students, has now expanded into Cornerstones, an invitation-only general education program that includes students of all majors. As the university’s residential population grew, the college was among the first to form Living Learning Communities (LLCs). About 200 students now live in four college-sponsored LLCs.
“The idea of being the experimental lab, trying to work on faculty development, trying to work on curricular change, I think it’s still a good mission for the program,” O’Connor says. He notes that early members of the NCC faculty continue to shepherd these ideals elsewhere at the university, including from the Provost’s Office.
New Century in the New Century
Nance Lucas, who served as the college’s associate dean from 2005 until January 2013 and is now executive director of NCC’s Center for Consciousness and Transformation, identifies today’s typical NCC student as someone who seeks challenges.
“They want to be engaged in learning and help create their learning environment,” she says. “That has been true from the moment the college was created.”
Lucas notes that NCC’s interdisciplinary nature is still critical to the program’s success. “No one single discipline or field can solve society’s most complex or pressing problems,” she says. “The real value of an integrative studies degree program is that students are making connections among a wide range of fields and disciplines.”
The emphasis on building competencies in critical thinking, global understanding, communication, and civic engagement also make program graduates appealing to employers, Lucas says.
“Our graduates come to them with competencies that employers say they cannot teach college graduates,” Lucas says. “They can teach them technical domain knowledge, but they can’t teach them how to be critical thinkers or how to be good leaders or collaborators.”
Keeping the college and its offerings relevant as the student population and employment market shift is a priority for NCC administrators. As new associate dean and associate professor Lisa Gring-Pemble starts her tenure, she is thinking about NCC’s future. At a time when the university is crafting its vision, she plans for NCC to do the same.
“This is such a critical time in the university’s future,” Gring-Pemble says. “It really is an opportune moment for us to come together collectively and reflect on who we are as a college, who we want to become, and how we can best serve our students, alumni, and university.”
Alumni are a key part of that future. Both Lucas and Gring-Pemble note the eagerness of college alumni to give back to NCC through student mentoring, speaking in classrooms, and reinvigorating the college’s alumni group. It’s part of the college’s ethos, according to Gring-Pemble.
“Students come out of our program and see themselves as agents of change,” she says. “They see themselves not only as agents of change, but as having a responsibility to transform the communities they are living in. And they go out and do that.”
New Century College houses three academic and research centers: the Center for Field Studies, the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement, and the Center for Consciousness and Transformation (CCT). Read more about all of them, including CCT’s efforts to make Mason a well-being university, at spirit.gmu.edu.
Sidebar: Fund-Raising Drive Creates Leadership Scholarship
After more than seven years as associate dean for New Century College (NCC), Nance Lucas stepped down in January and became director of the college’s Center for Consciousness and Transformation. To honor her tenure, NCC’s external advisory board has launched an effort to endow a scholarship in her name.
For Lucas, it’s a deeply personal honor. A full-ride scholarship recipient during her undergraduate years at Penn State, she credits the support with ensuring she could finish her degree and giving her a different perspective on her life as a college student.
“The scholarship was a means for me, but it also held me accountable, too,” she says. “It inspired me to take advantage of everything. I was like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to make every moment count.”
Diane Schulte, the advisory board’s chair, says the group has long been impressed by the leadership traits displayed by the college’s students and wanted to create the scholarship to recognize and support these young leaders. “We named the scholarship after Nance Lucas to recognize her contribution to NCC, but it is also a celebration of NCC and its leadership ethos, which Nance embodies,” Schulte says.
Lucas, who created the advisory board at the start of her tenure, is humbled by the gesture. “I know there are many students who are working full time or part time and struggling to stay in school,” she says. “If this scholarship can, in some way, make a difference to them in the same way it did to me, I think that’s really important.”
For more information on the initiative, please contact Kelly McCaskill, director of development for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-993-8706.