Retiring Whittier President Garnered Support for Students - Higher Education
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Retiring Whittier President Garnered Support for Students

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Whittier College President Dr. Sharon D. Herzberger can be found cheering for various Whittier athletic teams, also known as the Poets; attending college plays; or casually strolling on campus with students, faculty and staff in her well known “Walk and Talks.”

Since taking the helm as Whittier’s 14th president in 2005, Herzberger has helped to further Whittier’s legacy as one of the nation’s leading liberal arts institutions for cultural diversity today.

Dr. Sharon D. Herzberger, president of Whittier College, talks with a student.

Her unique background in social psychology and social cognition allowed her to challenge students to continuously practice cross-cultural engagement and be intentional in their efforts to overcome implicit prejudices. This, she says, creates an environment for students to become better leaders, better professionals and, ultimately, “fairer as human beings.”

“Being around people who have different backgrounds helps you practice not making stereotype judgments about people, and our students benefit from that at a college like this,” Herzberger says. “Students who want that kind of environment seek it. They come here knowing what we are and they contribute to it.”

Although Herzberger’s time at Whittier is drawing to a close — she will be retiring at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year — her legacy will shape future students’ experiences for years to come due to the opportunities established and enhanced during her tenure at the college.

Under her 13-year leadership, the college increased undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent, doubled the number of students studying abroad, conferred more than 4,414 bachelor’s and master’s degrees and deepened its commitment to undergraduate research, fellowships and internships, among other applied and service learning opportunities.

She oversaw the establishment of more than 300 new fellowships for students, the launch of career development events such as the “Backpack to Briefcase” series and “Lessons on Leadership” program and new opportunities planned by the Center for Engagement with Communities. The center allows students to learn alongside alumni or other professionals in government, health care or other organizations.

In achieving her vision for Whittier, Herzberger says learning the college’s history and traditions was “so helpful for a new president starting out.” She adds that it was easy to build on the foundations set by Whittier’s founders and its namesake, the poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier.

Herzberger also praises her faculty for their role in making Whittier a supportive institution for students. Faculty members often spend hours outside of the classroom setting, mentoring students, she says, noting that many of them could be presidents themselves.

“Students get to know faculty so well and keep up with faculty throughout their careers,” she says. “That’s something that has existed for a long time here.”

For the last few years, institutional leaders and faculty worked hard to implement “high-impact practices,” such as having first-year and senior seminars and focusing on applied learning opportunities so that students could apply what they learn from the classroom to real-world experiences.

Particularly with faculty-led study abroad trips, Herzberger shares that traveling serves as a high-impact practice because it exposes students to something new and also connects them with a faculty mentor who embarked on the trip with them. “They’re so close to the faculty who has been with them every day for the trip,” Herzberger says.

One of Herzberger’s initial goals was to double the number of travel-study opportunities for students, which she says she did “very, very quickly” with the help of a grant from the Mellon Foundation. Her next goal is to get every student engaged in a travel-study experience through a $2,000 Global Poet Scholarship funded by alumni, donors and other fundraising efforts.

“Every student, upon becoming a sophomore, gets this and can use it for the rest of their time here to take these travel study courses,” Herzberger says.

An eye on funding

In addition to increasing diversity and the wealth of travel and career opportunities for students, Herzberger led the college’s largest capital project with the renovation of the Science and Learning Center. The college also expanded its Campus Center, renovated nearly all of the academic spaces and media labs and enhanced athletic facilities.

Whittier’s alumni engagement is also at its height, as well as the college’s commitment to providing students with an affordable and high-quality education. One of the concerns that Whittier’s next president must face, Herzberger says, is addressing the increasing cost of education in today’s era.

Herzberger adds that raising scholarship and fellowship support for students has been a priority for her since her arrival because “we are in an age where the public doesn’t see education as a public value,” she says. “Increasingly, we are needing to convince federal and state governments that they should continue to support [students] with scholarship aid, work-study aid or the Pell Grant.”

A $100-million fundraising campaign during Herzberger’s leadership supported renovations of campus facilities and helped support students, with 85 percent of Whittier students receiving some type of financial aid.

“We have had great success in convincing alumni, grateful parents and foundation friends to support us in this,” Herzberger says. “Without their help, we could not have made this progress.”

Developing work skills

About three-quarters of Whittier’s student body work on campus either through work study or in campus departments. The college is in the process of turning every job that a student holds on campus into an internship where they are expected to evaluate the skills they are learning.

Further, “supervisors have to make sure that students are really gaining the kinds of job experiences and skills that will be useful to them when they graduate,” Herzberger adds.

Herzberger’s efforts to support students at Whitter have made her an innovative and accessible thought leader in higher education. She has represented the college at the White House twice, and she chaired the NCAA Division III Presidents Council.

Herzberger also served on the board of directors for the Council of Independent Colleges, the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

As she prepares for her retirement, Herzberger shares that she is ready to pass along to the next president a college that has the “best student body, the best faculty and, frankly, the best trustees in the world,” she says. “I’m most proud to be able to pass along a college that’s in a really good place and has a mission that is worth working hard for.”

Next year, she will leave the campus as a place where no racial or ethnic groups hold the majority and more than 60 percent of the campus population constitute students of color.

“We’re a model environment and you hope that one day the entire nation will be like us,” Herzberger says.

Having walked more than 250 miles in her organized campus “Walk and Talks,” she adds that she is grateful to learn about the Whittier experience from the various students, faculty and staff who join her. For Herzberger, serving as Whittier’s president has been “the best job.”

“There is nothing better than standing at one end of the graduation stage and watching students cross that stage towards you, and being able to shake their hand and know that they are going to go off in the world and do something great.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tpennamon@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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