The Pursuit of Passions: A Liberal Arts Education Opens Windows on the World

Bridgewater College’s commitment to the liberal arts goes beyond simply ensuring students are “well-rounded.” It grounds them in the skills of critical thinking, creativity and communication, and prepares them to be lifelong learners. A liberal arts education at BC is a dialogue between disciplines and relies on an academic major, the core curriculum and free electives to prepare students to pursue their passions in their careers and in their lives outside the workplace.

BC’s core curriculum—the Foundation in Liberal Arts (FILA) program—is exactly that. It is the heart of the College’s liberal arts ethos in that it’s a shared intellectual experience that provides all students, regardless of their major, an education based on the fundamental skills of critical inquiry, effective writing, oral communication and quantitative literacy. Every student engages ideas across the academic disciplines by taking courses in the social sciences, the arts and humanities and in the natural sciences. Community engagement outside of the classroom is highlighted through May Term travel courses, internships and practica, service-learning and other courses with experiential learning components.

“Our core curriculum is our most interdisciplinary program,” says Provost and Executive Vice President Dr. Leona Sevick. “It doesn’t just expand your content knowledge and help you develop your intellectual skills, it also expands your capacity for seeking out and finding your passions.”

FILA-450 requires seniors to create a senior portfolio, for which they demonstrate and document their experiences and growth over their BC experience, integrating both curricular and co-curricular components and discussing short- and long-term goals for the future. Recent graduate Leisha Nissley’s senior portfolio focused on “connections” and how interdisciplinary projects and assignments helped her better connect with others, herself and her major area of study, music education. She says through her FILA classes she was able to find a community outside of music and also share her love of music with others.

Throughout their time at Bridgewater, students interact with their peers from all majors and with professors beyond just their own home department. It’s the biology major who discovers a love of poetry and the English major who sees how the scientific method can apply to other areas of their life. And it’s these interactions—these connections—that help develop the whole person and encourage them to deepen their interests.

“Passions don’t develop in solitude, they develop in community,” Sevick says.

Staying on top of best practices in learning modalities is central to the Bridgewater approach to serving its students. A committee made up of key faculty and staff members is constantly exploring ways to ensure the FILA curriculum meets the needs of today’s learners. Sevick says the College continually evaluates all of its academic programs to make sure it best serves current and future students.

“Any educational enterprise has to be committed to looking at their academic programs, evaluating their strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, and then figuring out ways to make them better,” Sevick says.

It’s not just academic coursework, though, that develops and nurtures passions. The Center for Engaged Learning (CEL) combines academics with extracurricular programming to enhance the college experience for students and help them to become active in communities both locally and globally. Three endowed institutes, each led by a faculty member, are housed within the CEL: the Kline-Bowman Institute for Peace and Justice, the Zane D. Showker Institute for Responsible Leadership and the Wade Institute for Teaching and Learning. Each institute focuses on a different aspect of the total student experience at BC, creating a framework for making connections that is a critical part of a liberal arts education.

“There’s a way in which you’ll be able to live more deeply, more fully, if you’re able to see and make connections between the many parts of your education,” says Dr. Jamie Frueh, Associate Provost and Director of the CEL.

Director of the Wade Institute Dr. Robyn Puffenbarger, Professor of Biology and Department Chair, says Bridgewater’s focus on engagement allows faculty members across departments to get to know one another and share resources and best practices related to teaching pedagogy and advising students. 

“If I have a biology student who’s a really great writer, for instance, I might suggest some professional writing courses or communication studies courses or adding a minor outside of the STEM field,” Puffenbarger says. “When you see a student with these passions, it’s easy to say, ‘Have you thought about this?’ and connect them with the right people. It’s so rewarding to help students find their path.”

Student “pathfinding” is not left to chance—BC cultivates opportunities with intentionality. This year, Beth Gaver ’23, a double major in history and political science and global studies, also received the Outstanding Theatre Artist Award from the Department of Communication Studies and Theatre. Theater had always been something Gaver was interested in trying, and she pushed herself out of her comfort zone to audition for Theatre at BC’s production of Neil Simon’s Rumors her sophomore year.

“The liberal arts environment gave me the opportunity to explore several fields, not just my majors,” says Gaver, who was also part of the student-run theatre organization The Pinion Players. “Despite having no experience, I was able to join theatre and find a new passion.”

“BC is about the development of educated citizens,” says President David Bushman. “An essential part of that work is preparation for economic and professional success, and we do it well, but our graduates’ lives are about more than just what they do for a living, so their education must be about more than simply job training. Cultivating passions in our students is our way of ensuring they will lead full and successful lives—lives of meaning and purpose.”

By Jessica Luck