First-Years Engage in New Scholarly Program

Elisabeth Tone

When the Admissions Office sent out acceptance letters to the Class of 2012 last spring, a distinct group of students received more than just a “congratulations” and a handwritten note from Vice President and Dean of Admission Gary Ross. Certain students also received an invitation to join the newly established Benton Scholars program. Ultimately, 19 first-year students accepted this offer, perhaps without even completely grasping the unique educational experience upon which they were about to embark.

Dan Benton ’80, a member of the Board of Trustees, worked with President of the University and Professor of Philosophy and Religion President Rebecca Chopp to establish a program at Colgate that would allow students to explore the enormous changes currently taking place in politics, economics and culture. These students were selected during the admissions process based on their excellent academics, their capacity for leadership and the variety of background experiences that they would be able to draw upon when learning about the complex issues in our world today.

Dean of Admissions Gary Ross described the selection process for the Benton Scholars as “quite lengthy and labor intensive.” Senior Associate Dean of Admission Lynn Holcomb and former Assistant Dean of Admission Heather Lockrow worked in conjunction with a selection committee to choose about twenty students from those already deemed admissible to the Class of 2012. The Benton Scholars selection committee included Professor of Political Science Tim Byrnes, Associate Professor of Philosophy David Dudrick, Associate Dean of Academic Programs and Special Assistant to the Vice President and Dean of the College Raj Bellani as well as Dean Ross.

“I was ecstatic when I was asked to join the program,” Benton Scholar first-year Emily Merkle said. “I was most interested in the concept of global learning and leadership on a global scale, instead of [just] within a small community. The program provides us with the opportunity to contribute a lot [to the Colgate Campus].”

Once on campus, the Benton Scholars all moved into Curtis Hall.

“Sometimes, I think you could film an episode of MTV’s The Real World in our dorm,” first-year Joshua Smeltzer said. “We all know each other and we’re always around each other. That being said, I love having a group of friends that I know I’ll be around for the next four years.”

In addition to living together, these 19 first-years are all enrolled in the FSEM entitled “Political Theology,” a course that is team-taught by President Chopp and Professor Byrnes.

“This course is designed to introduce students to the idea that many people in this world define their political views in religious terms,” Byrnes said. “Since President Chopp is a professor of theology and I am a professor of political science, our interests intersect perfectly with the goals of the program.”

In contrast to Professor Byrnes’ description of the course, Smeltzer believes that he can define “Political Theology” with just one word: pressure.

“Knowing that President Chopp will be reading all of your papers adds a whole new dimension to an already challenging class,” Smeltzer said. “I think the pressure is what makes the class so much fun — we have to perform well.”

Throughout the course of the semester, Professor Byrnes and President Chopp hope to instill in their students an understanding of the complex world into which they will eventually graduate. They intend to explore how a liberal arts education prepares students to deal with the novel challenges that constantly arise in our ever-changing world. One of the fundamental questions to be answered in the course is: “What can Colgate provide to its students so that they can become leaders in this emerging world?”

Next semester, the 19 Benton Scholars will take a special section of the “Challenge of Modernity” course in which they will continue to investigate the themes of the program. Such themes include how the world is changing, the challenges and obstacles that human society is encountering worldwide and the way in which we all engage with this new world.

Furthermore, next summer, the Benton Scholars intend to travel to Russia, where they will be able to apply concepts learned in “Political Theology” to the real world.

“Russia is a great choice because it is a developing country and essentially combines two worlds — the new age of democracy and the transition from the old Soviet era,” Benton Scholar first-year Michael Schon said. “The trip will ultimately help keep with the program’s goals by broadening our horizons on a global level; making us think about the world beyond traditional ‘western borders’ [the U.S. and Europe]; and exposing us to different cultures, traditions, lifestyles, and ideas.”

Long after their first year has come to an end, this “critical mass of students” will continue to draw upon experiences acquired in “Political Theology” to create a community on campus that is interested in investigating the issues that have made the modern world so complicated. The Benton Scholars will organize events and invite speakers to campus in an effort to raise the profile of political, economic and cultural questions that our generation is responsible for answering. Ideally, such events will increase student awareness of a world beyond Colgate and will cultivate interest in engaging in such a world.

“The young men and women who are a part of the Benton Scholar Class of 2012 will have a superb impact on Colgate in and out of the classroom,” Ross said.

“The intersection between the goals of the program and the wider Colgate curriculum is embodied in these students,” Byrnes said. He hopes that the Benton Scholars will major in a variety of subjects and study abroad in diverse areas, so that they may use the ideas that they encounter in class to shape the manner in which they approach their academic specialties and experiences abroad.

Both Byrnes and Smeltzer wish to make clear, however, that the Benton Scholars are in no way separate or distinct from the rest of their class.

When asked if being part of the Benton Scholars program has made it difficult to get to know the rest of the freshman class, Smeltzer replied, “Not at all! We’re an outgoing group of kids getting involved in many different organizations on campus — the Colgate 13, Outdoor Education, Election ’08. Just imagine the Benton Scholar group as another extra-curricular.”

“These students live, work and learn together, but they are not part of any sort of honors program,” Byrnes said. “The class in which they are enrolled is supposed to help them build a community that will benefit all students as they go out into the changing world. Everyone should engage in this enterprise of thinking in new ways.”

For at least the foreseeable future, fifteen to twenty students from each incoming class will be selected to join the Benton Scholars program. Ross predicts that a similar selection method will be implemented in the coming years, as the Admissions department believes that “the inaugural Benton Scholars class is truly outstanding.”

In the future, Professor Byrnes hopes that “the community we are trying to build [on campus] will grow and evolve.”