Large Campus Body Small Campus Feel: Common Experience Program at Texas State University San Marcos
Think a large college can’t be personal? Think again! My College Guide has discussed the pros and cons of campus size before, but after hearing about the Common Experience Program at Texas State University, we wanted to point out what sounds like a very good way to help a large campus body retain a small campus feel – and create a healthy dose of community in the process! We spoke with the Common Experience Program Co-Chair Dr. Nico Schuler for the low-down. You can connect on Twitter and Facebook, too!
What is the Common Experience Program?
The Common Experience, a Texas State University-San Marcos initiative, is an annual academic program designed to engage the university, area public schools, and neighboring communities in dialogue surrounding a chosen theme and a common text. The Common Experience is cross-disciplinary and multi-faceted, involving shared, inclusive intellectual conversations between students, faculty, staff, and community members. In short, the Common Experience brings people together throughout the academic year in events related to a common theme.
So, Common Experience isn’t just for established students – new incoming students can also get involved?
Anyone can attend Common Experience events or get involved more actively. The Common Experience is a grassroots movement: events are proposed and organized bottom up, not top down.
This program sounds like a great way to unite a large college campus – how did Common Experience get its start and how long has it been around?
Common Experience was proposed by Dr. Christopher Frost and began during the 2004- 2005 academic year with the discussion centered on the theme of Hatred. The experiential element is most important, whether it takes place as part of a course, in an extra-curricular event, in informal get-togethers (such as in a coffee shop), etc.
What are some of the things that Texas State University students will attend as a part of this innovative program?
We always have major events with a well-known person as the main speaker (or sometimes a panel of speakers), smaller speaking events, symposia, film series, art exhibitions, poetry readings, musical performances, class activities, the reading and discussion of a book, workshops, formal and informal discussions, festivals and celebrations, the performance of plays, open mike events – and all of those events center around the annual theme. This year’s theme, for example, is Sustainability: Science, Policy, and Opportunity.
What other topics have been studied and examined by previous Common Experience programs?
The first year (2004-2005) was on Hatred. The next year was the year of Courage. The
following themes were Protest & Dissent, The Water Planet, and Civic Responsibility and
the Legacy of LBJ. This past year was the most extensive Common Experience yet, with the
theme of The Whole Mind: Crossing Boundaries of Disciplines. We had about 180 events
related to last year’s theme!
Do you have any favorite moments from previous years? What are some of the highlights?
Since we have many different events every year, this may be different for every participant. But frequently, the main speakers are said to be most memorable (for me personally, too). Most memorable were the visits of Maya Angelou, Sir Ken Robinson, Spike Lee, Edward James Olmos, Isabel Allende, Erin Brockowich-Ellis, and Andrew Young, to name a few.
We have annual “Juilliard Joins Texas State for a Common Experience in the Arts” concerts, in which Juilliard students, professors, and alumni collaborate with Texas State students, professors, and alumni to create artistic extravaganzas with music, drama, and dance. We are happy to specifically collaborate with Juilliard Professor and Texas State Distinguished Alumnus Dr. Wayne Oquin on those events.
So, not only Texas State University students are involved, but it’s also open to the community?
Yes, the involvement of the community is very important. We collaborate with the Public Library here in San Marcos, which organizes book discussions and other events. These public book discussions usually include the mayor of San Marcos, Susan Narvaiz; the fact that a mayor personally participates has drawn a lot of positive attention. In addition, we invite public and private schools to bring their students to our campus and participate in our events, which are always free of charge.
Who leads Common Experience?
The Common Experience is co-chaired by Diann McCabe, Dr. Pam Wuestenberg, and myself. As Co-chairs, we oversee event programming and help the rest of the team where needed. The Dean of the University College, Dr. Ron Brown, is the connection to the upper administration of the university, which is important for funding and other support. Most of the work is done by dozens of students, faculty, staff, and community members.
How is this program organized?
Our organizational structure is circular. We have a Common Experience Team, and most of these team members lead sub-teams to organize specific events or types of events. Thus, we don’t have a traditional pyramid structure, and all members of the team and sub-teams are equal. We believe that this is the only way a Common Experience on such a grand scale – at a university with more than 30,000
students – can work.