Erskine’s Renaissance man

[note: this and a previous post are articles written a couple of months ago for the Erskine Communications Office.]

When I was asked  to write about my professors and the impact they have made on me, many names flashed through my mind but the first and strongest was Dr. Elsner, one of my psychology professors.  I have had the honor of knowing him for almost 5 years now since I met him as a junior in high school when visiting my sister at Erskine.  Ijust completed my fourth class with him and I loved every minute (almost–his quizzes are never much fun, but they challenge us!).  I also work with him as the psychology lab manager and through the psychology society.  His classes and the work and research I have done as a result have prepared me for graduate school more than anything else.

Dr. Elsner is the truest living example of a Renaissance man that I have ever had the privilege to meet.  He has over a dozen advanced degrees, is a Cordon Bleu chef and a Scout Master, and is an artist of various mediums.  The walls of the psychology lobby in the Erskine building are dotted with about twenty of his paintings and drawings.  I have had stimulating conversations and discussions with Dr. Elsner about all sorts of topics—theology, literature, dance, cars, neuroscience, and beyond—which always leave me feeling impressed with his wealth of knowledge and woeful of mine.  Rather than making me feel ignorant and lacking, though, he encourages me in my capabilities and potential and truly encourages me to make the most of my talents and abilities.

Everyone associated with Erskine is familiar with our mission statement, and we frequently hear about engaging students and developing as whole persons in our Christ-centered environment.  One of the things that has always struck me most about Dr. Elsner, in addition to his intelligence and talent, is how he earnestly seeks to know his students, colleagues, and friends as whole persons.  Even meeting him as a junior in high school, his words to me showed an honest desire to know who I am past my academic and extracurricular achievements and how he could best help me fulfill God’s calling for my life.  I study and work in the psychology lab or lobby nearly every day, and I see this same quality in every conversation I have heard between him and his students and colleagues.  He will graciously take the time to talk to, and counsel, any soul that knocks on his door–and always with a smile.  He has attended more student sporting events and performances than probably any other student or faculty member at Erskine.  I think that if I succeeded in investing as much time as he does into people, I would never have time to sleep.  He is truly one of the most honest examples of how to live by true Christian standards that I know.

Dr. Elsner is my professor, my advisor, my boss, and my friend.  He has been a literal shoulder to cry on through some of the hardest struggles of my life and one of my biggest cheerleaders at performances.  I know that compliments from him are sincere and that critiques are encouragement to perform to my full potential.  He has helped me find and develop strengths that I didn’t know I have, encouraged me in making difficult moral decisions, and offered a safe haven when I was struggling with depression and anxiety.  Aside from my family, no one has had a greater or more positive impact on my life.  Words are truly insufficient to express my gratitude to him.

Erskine professors are the best.

Part of what makes Erskine so special–part of that unique feeling on campus that no one can quite explain–is the faculty.  Every professor at Erskine could most likely make more money and gain more prestige working elsewhere but they choose to be here.  I know many instances of professors leaving higher-paying jobs (or turning down enticing offers) elsewhere to be here.  This is so striking because it shows just how much these individuals truly care about us, their students.

While at Erskine, I have had the most contact with the psychology, foreign language, and music departments.  Professors in almost every department, though, have deeply impacted me in both similar and varying ways.  I have never seen a teacher as truly excited about math as Dr. Gorka and I have also had the benefit of his excellent advising regarding study abroad.  I have learned–and retained–more world history in the past few years than I have the rest of my life combined.  Dr. Granados’ classes have both frustrated me and massively improved my ability to communicate in Spanish, as well as fostered a genuine interest in Spanish literature.  I talk to her as a professor and as a friend.  Our current acting president, Dr. Christie, has also been my acting director and my English teacher.  I know of no one else who could make the book Moby Dick as interesting as he did in his American Romanticism course.

I have spent hundreds of hours in the music building singing as part of a choral ensemble, in voice lessons, in practice rooms, and as a performer in many concerts and musical productions; and  I have attended many other musical performances by amateurs and professionals.  Thanks to Erskine’s music department, I have had a music scholarship for four years even though I am not a major or minor.  Singing with the Choraleers for four years, as well as Chamber Singers and Bella Voce, has afforded me the opportunity to sing and worship at dozens of churches around the southeastern United States.  Some of my favorite memories of college were made during Choraleers retreats or trips.  Singing sacred music with a choir and conductor who actually believe the words we are singing is a far more powerful experience than singing the same music with a secular ensemble.  And Dr. Nabholz’s daily witty comments and retorts never fail to make us laugh.

The professors in the psychology department have been my encouragement, my biggest supporters, and sometimes my biggest frustrations.  Drs. Elsner, Showalter, Sniteman, and now Dr. Van Scoy are truly some of my favorite people on campus.  They have celebrated my achievements with me, given me countless words of motivation and advice, and helped me find my footing when I stumble.  I have read thousands of pages and spent countless hours studying for this department, but it is [almost] never boring.  These professors see potential in me that I never would have found or believed on my own, and they are part of the reason that I consider the psychology lobby/lab my second home on campus.  If I get accepted into a graduate program, and survive, it will be due to the thorough preparation they have given me.

I know of few universities where professor can connect your name to your face, let alone know your family, hometown, major, and campus involvement.  I not only learn from these extremely intelligent individuals, I eat meals with them, know their families, and have called them at home or on their cell phone.  They remember to ask about my health when I’ve been ill or hurt or how a major assignment or exam turned out when I’ve been stressed.  More than a couple of professors kept up with me and my travels and experiences abroad via Facebook and I don’t find that weird at all.  Erskine may have more than its fair share of stellar professors, but I would not change that for anything.

Knowing and Being Known

One of the best experiences which my time at Erskine has afforded me has been the opportunity to study abroad at the University of St. Andrews. For three and a half months I am living and learning in a new country, entirely different from my own. Studying abroad is amazing.

Studying abroad, strangely enough, has also reinforced all of the reasons why I love Erskine College so much and why I chose to study mathematics and psychology there instead of anywhere else. I am sure you have heard that the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Before I came to Scotland, I loved Erskine, but I was still unsure if I had made the right decision when I heard about things students were doing at other colleges. The fact is that no matter where you go to college, someone else, somewhere else will always be doing something amazing. Experiencing the large research university, with hundreds of students in every class and professors who will never even learn my name, has shown me that the “other side” might be what is right for some people, but also that Erskine College has helped me to grow academically, emotionally, and spiritually more than I ever could have expected to anywhere else.

The key difference is the relationships I have developed with my professors. Students at colleges around the world usually have plenty of opportunities to meet new friends and spend time having fun with people they care about. They don’t usually have the opportunity to spend time with their professors, the people who are teaching them every day in the classroom. When I tell my new friends in here in Scotland that I have spent hours in my professors offices, babysitting their kids, or going over to their houses for dinner they generally look at me as if an alien has landed and taken over my body; none of them have ever heard of such a thing!

Freshman year I came to Erskine confused about who I was and what I wanted to study. I had only visited Erskine one time prior and still was unsure how to make my way around campus, the typical lost freshman girl who was unsure about anything and everything. I still remember the day that I decided I wanted to study psychology and needed to write my four year plan. I wondered in to Dr. Elsner’s office (the chair of the psychology department at Erskine) and asked him for his help. I didn’t know, then, that professors have office hours for students or that students are typically schedule appointments with their professors before just showing up at their door. I stumbled into Dr. Elsner’s office, and he helped me with my four year plan for psychology and patiently answered my seemingly unending stream of questions.

Sophomore year I requested to have Dr. Elsner as my advisor and also took a class with him that met five days a week, all year long. I am pretty sure that any other professor would have been absolutely tired of seeing me every day that year! But if he was, he hid it well. Almost every afternoon that year I came into his office with at least ten questions about what we were learning in class that day, and to ask for his opinion on my ideas for a research project. Dr. Elsner answered them all, and encouraged me to try new things. He suggested that I try applying for summer research opportunities, gave advice for which ones would be good for me, wrote letters of recommendation for my applications, and then encouraged me to try again next year when I didn’t receive any offers for placements.

Junior year came with a surprise: I decided that I wanted to study abroad my senior year. Most students plan to study abroad well in advance before they go; they usually come in to college and design their four year plan around their semester away. About a third of the way through my third year, I decided I wanted to go too. Yet, if it hadn’t been for Dr. Elsner, I would not have been able to go. Not only did he support my decision, he helped me to completely rearrange my four year to include time for studying in Scotland. Making my trip to Scotland possible was not just an afternoon of creative thinking! To make sure I received all of my credits for graduation, Dr. Elsner had to meet with me twice a week spring semester to teach me a course in Developmental Psychology. Developmental psychology is offered every year in the fall, but I wanted to take it in the spring so I could go to St. Andrews in the fall. If Dr. Elsner hadn’t been willing to take time out of his busy schedule to teach a course just for me, I never would have been able to come to Scotland.

Senior year has been no different. Right now I am in Scotland, writing this article in the University of St. Andrews library. Already I have emailed Dr. Elsner three times this weekend. The first was ask him several questions about class registration for spring registration. Two of the classes I need to take to graduate are offered at the same time, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Dr. Elsner emailed me back and offered to move the time for psychology senior seminar so I could get all of my classes does in time for May. The second email was about the new APA guidelines for undergraduate psychology. Dr. Elsner emailed all of his students and asked us if we would like to read the new guidelines and offer feedback for the upcoming changes in the department. I think all students really appreciate the regular opportunity to give feedback on what we are learning and how the department can improve. The third was about graduate school, to ask him if he would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation letter for my application to a Ph.D. program in North Carolina. Dr. Elsner wrote back quickly and told me to send him the details!

The best thing about Erskine is that this story would not be surprising to any of the students who read it. Dr. Elsner treats each and every student who has him as their advisor as important and worthy of his time. When I go to his office, there is almost always a line of students waiting to talk to him and get his advice, because he makes it clear that every student is important to him. Each student who comes to ask for his advice gets his full attention and support, even those who don’t have him as their advisor or may not even be taking any classes from him! I have written about Dr. Elsner because he is my advisor, but I would also not expect anything less from any of the other professors who mentor each of the students at Erskine College. In my opinion, this is what Erskine really means when they offer the chance for each student to know and be known.

The liberal arts experience

I would just like to say that I adore going to a liberal arts college.  There is little more exciting [at least for me] than making endless connections among disciplines and having the pieces fall into place. For example: a world civ lecture on Greek philosophers the other day helped me figure out how to finish a paper on Rousseau for my Family Theory class.  A couple of days later, an American Government lecture on Calvinism helped put Rousseau in context even better for me.  I constantly find overlaps with psychology and every other subject.

I also love just learning.  In my Sensation & Perception class, we have been discussing the psychophysiology of the brain as it relates to vision.  I now walk around campus thinking about how the parts of my eyeballs, the optic nerves, and all of the various areas of my brain are constantly working together to make sense of the world.  Our homework assignments for this class are always quite fun as well: for example, last night I got to play with Play-Doh!

Our professors at Erskine are truly an exceptional source of information.  I frequently find myself, on my way to or from class or errands on campus, running into a professor and spending the next 20-60 minutes discussing life, classes, future plans, and almost any other topic you could imagine.  I found my professors in St. Andrews to be quite easily approachable, but not in the unique way that makes Erskine the strong, close-knit community that it is.  My favourite part of studying here (yes: studying can be fun!) is coming across quotes from professors as I review class notes.  My pen is always poised to copy funny comments during class.  I truly love being around sociable intellectuals: they are truly witty.  (I’d like to note that this also applies to so many students here as well.  Academia is wonderful.)

One of my favourite examples of this happened just a few days ago.  Dr. Christie, our acting president and probably the best English teacher I have ever had in my life, gave the address for the formal opening of the college and seminary.  (That’s a lot of words to say that school has officially begun.  Let the work commence!)  I had to laugh when, sitting with the Choraleers in the balcony of Due West ARP church before it started, I saw on the program that the title of his address was “Dude! Alas!”  Only Dr. Christie could tie the word “dude” into Scripture so effectively.  Curious as to how this could be?  Watch it here:  The Secret Sevens even make their way in to the ceremony.  I much prefer this one to the alarm clocks a few years ago…

I wish I had photos to add to this post, because that’s one of my favourite parts about blogging; alas, I have none.  I promise to make up for it in the next post though!  I should probably go catch up on homework though…being a senior is no easy task.  If you have any recommendations I would be happy to hear them.