Longwood student studying on a trip to Yellowstone

Three months ago, Longwood announced the largest gift in its history, a nearly $6 million donation by Joan ‘64 and Macon Brock to establish a signature program of place-based, multi-disciplinary learning experiences modeled on the popular programs Longwood already operates in Yellowstone National Park and in Alaska. Faculty in fields ranging from biology to business have already begun pondering potential programs they might develop under the initiative, which in the years to come will vastly expand the number of Longwood students who can experience these transformational off-campus learning opportunities.

Longtime Residential and Commuter Life administrator Josh Blakely, who has been at Longwood since 2007 and deeply involved with the Yellowstone program, is assuming a new role as Director of Brock Experiences. He will work with faculty members to help develop new programs and coordinate logistics. This spring, faculty from any academic discipline at Longwood are invited to submit proposals, and the first two Brock Fellows to develop new programs will be selected and announced this semester.

Faculty whose proposals are selected will spend two years developing their transformational experiences before the courses – likely to be offered over the course of a few weeks in May or other breaks during the academic calendar -- are offered to students. New Brock Fellows will be selected each year. We sat down with Blakely to talk about the new program and how it will impact generations of Longwood students.

In your previous role, you were closely involved with the Longwood @ Yellowstone National Park program, which serves as a model for future Brock experiences. What impact have you seen that program have on students?

When it comes to transformational learning, it’s about getting outside your comfort zone, and Yellowstone does that almost immediately. You know, we have students who have never been on a plane before and all of the sudden they are in a different physical place that immediately challenges them on that level. That different perspective forces them to engage on a different level than what they get in a classroom setting.

It’s also incredibly valuable for students to be pushed to take the skills they learn in the classroom and apply them to complex real-world problems in a setting beyond campus. That will be one of the defining goals of the new programs we develop, too. For instance, at Yellowstone, statistics aren’t numbers in a math textbook—they illustrate problems that students can see and feel. It’s not someone lecturing, but it’s about talking to people, hearing their stories, and processing that information. And we are all trying to find solutions to these problems together. In other words, we’re teaching them the skills to engage as a citizen.

Do you remember particular students who were especially transformed?

There was one student who was on the Alaska program who was assigned to dive into the issue of substance abuse in the Anchorage area, and I watched him come alive while studying this. He started counting liquor stores and interviewing a lot of people to wrap his head around the problem, and you could almost see his perspective grow broader. When he returned to Virginia, he started working with area vulnerable populations and trying to figure out how to address an issue where he lives.

There was another student who went to Yellowstone, came back and advocated for a stoplight in her town because there were so many traffic accidents in a particular place. So we really are changing the world—one stoplight at a time.

How do these programs reflect our mission of citizen leadership?

These programs can be the training ground for our citizen leaders—this can really be where they practice the skills they need to be leaders in their communities when they graduate. They take the top-notch education they get at Longwood and then apply and make sense out of it. In the best of internships, that’s what happens, but I’m not sure that happens in all of our practical experiences. But this forces the issue, because that’s the goal—to do something about it.

These programs can be the training ground for our citizen leaders—this can really be where they practice the skills they need to be leaders in their communities when they graduate.

Josh Blakely, Director of Brock Experiences

How will the Brock Experience set Longwood apart?

Well, plenty of schools offer travel courses, but not many engage in transformational learning as a stated goal. They may stumble upon that kind of transformative experience, but it’s not designed with that in mind. That experience is at the heart of everything we are doing with this program. Our students are going to get experiences they never would elsewhere, because of the generosity of the Brocks and because our faculty and staff are combining to create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Second, this is really a model for how we can collaborate across disciplines, which is a notoriously hard thing to achieve. And in the scholarship of teaching and learning, I think this sets us apart as leaders in the field.

That’s one of the guiding principle of the Brock Experiences -- that there is real energy when faculty from a range of disciplines work together with students and bring different perspective to bear. One could imagine almost any combination of disciplines collaborating – a history professor and a statistician, an economist and a literature professor. Why do you think that approach is so important for students?  

There is a huge untapped potential across different disciplines to be really creative and explore different directions to take a program. Really any place you look across the country, there’s an issue that’s local and needs to be explored from a different perspective. We’ve had some initial conversations about more urban environments, where students could explore business, economic, or educational issues that are different than what we find in a national park.

That’s why the two-year development period is so critical. These ideas won’t be proposed fully formed, and part of my role is to help connect faculty across colleges and departments to ensure we are creating the most meaningful programs possible.

What has been the reaction on campus?

Initially, I think people were really intrigued by the possibilities that the Brock’s gift will make a reality. There are people who have floated ideas, some of which may bear fruit, and more are still developing interesting ideas for programs. I’m eagerly anticipating the ideas that will be proposed this first year.

What will a successful application look like?

The requirements are intentionally broad —we don’t want faculty members to limit themselves when dreaming up a program. But there are three main pieces that are essential: the proposed program should be localized to a specific place with well-defined issues to investigate. Those issues should be broad enough to be approached from different disciplines. And the experience must have real potential to be transformative for students.

You’ve been here for ten years and met thousands of students. What do you see in Longwood students that makes these kind of learning experiences so poignant?

Generally, I think Longwood students are very open to different perspectives. They want to soak it all in when they enroll in these courses, and they tend to appreciate the opportunity to engage on another level. But more than that, I think they care. They care an awful lot about the world around them, and they want to make a difference. That’s pretty universal.

When they go on these experiences, they realize it’s possible to actually be a citizen leader. That concept takes on a real, tangible meaning to them. They come back believing they can be a community organizer or get a stoplight at a dangerous intersection or stand up in front of a board and talk about local economic issues. It becomes real because they meet citizen leaders who are living that life in these places—sometimes it’s a mayor and sometimes it’s a rancher who is also an activist. These things are meaningful to Longwood students because they care so deeply, and we would be making a mistake if we didn’t support that.

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