"I Absolutely Can"
New Chair of School of Undergraduate Studies on the Integral Future
As of July, the School of Undergraduate Studies at CIIS has a new chair and exciting new possibilities to explore as both halves of the SUS – the B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies and the B.S. in Psychology – come together under the leadership of Professor Anne Huffman. Huffman, who helped to found the B.S. program in 2018 and continues to teach courses in psychology, is helping both programs to embrace their identity as a single school while maintaining what makes each so unique.
Today she talks to us a little bit about the history of undergraduate studies at CIIS, and all the possibilities that come to life when students truly come first.
How do you hope these two schools interact, with one being so new and one being so established?
I think that's one of the challenges I have as a chair, and I think part of my work is to foster conversations between faculty and not keep people siloed. How can we be collaborative and be supportive as an entire faculty in the school who have teaching specialties in our programs? I want to share the richness and the diversity and the expertise.
Another challenge for us in the School of Undergraduate Studies is that CIIS is a graduate-focused school. How do we work with larger schools and CIIS as a whole to be seen? One way I think is to celebrate and connect over our students. Our students have gone all over the world for graduate programs. They've also gone back out in the world, taking what they've learned – their passion, their activism – back to their community, into their area of expertise. Are they an artist? Are they a teacher? Do they work with children? Are they a dancer or doing podcasts? Our students are doing so many great things and I don’t want us to be a secret.
How do you end up fostering some of the communication between psychology and interdisciplinary studies? It seems like they have a lot of to talk about, but like you said, academia can be very siloed.
I think that's part of the process. We, collectively, are learning. One of the discussions I've had with the School of Undergraduate Studies faculty is to ask: what is our philosophy of teaching as a school? Interdisciplinary Studies has a very rich philosophy of teaching based on their long lineages and their long experience teaching. The B.S. in Psychology also has a really rich philosophy of teaching, but it looks very different because we're a single discipline, even though we engage with all the different modes of psychology. I’m helping to foster conversations around where our similarities are, where our differences are, and, most importantly, where the students who come to both programs are.
One of the things we're doing, since we're online programs, is to have our Community Day, which is in-person and on campus, and includes students and faculty from both programs. In the morning we come together, do activities and interact, and then have a meal together. And then in the afternoon, we break up into the two programs and do workshops and fun projects. We’re trying to make it as inclusive as possible for every student, no matter the track.
Students really drive a lot of the conversations and initiatives. Can you say more about your student-focused approach?
Our students have all had an educational journey to get to CIIS, and their landscape may be dotted with different schools that weren't good fits, but they all have a lot of life experience, and they all are on amazing pathways. And we know we are not the end of their journey. We're not just the bachelor’s completion degree; we're really a stepping stone for where they want to go next. Whether it's a graduate program, whether it's a career promotion, whether it's work in their community, whether it's arts or social justice work or a passion project, we ask: How can we support their dreams and their visions? We have students coming in who are body workers, who are interested in plant medicine, who are social justice workers. I was interviewing a prospective student this morning, actually, and she's really passionate about starting after school programs to help children develop social-emotional learning. The students are central to the work we do as faculty and we want to be allies and advocates for them.
That's amazing to be able to see so many people with so much passion. How do you find the capacity for that individual touch while also maintaining the school as a whole?
I think it really is because we use the cohort model. Even though the programs are a single calendar year, the students really have that opportunity to go deeper because both programs are so rigorous. We smoosh a lot of transformation in personal growth into a very intense year! [laughs] The students really bond and form their own community, and it’s the work of the faculty and the University to continue to foster that community. One of the questions that I always ask in the interviews with prospective students is, “What do you think you'll contribute to the cohort so that it's not a one-way transactional process for degree earning?” We are co-creating together in the School of Undergraduate Studies.
Would you say that’s what sets the school of Undergraduate Studies apart?
I think it's really that we understand whole person education. We're informed by the seven pillars of CIIS, and we really do passionately care about mind, body, and spirit. Our integral values mean that instead of students taking a test, getting a grade, all very mechanical — here, because we don’t use tests, it’s an invitation to students who have felt shut down in other educational systems.
We know collectively as a faculty that there's educational wounding and trauma that will be emerging that will be worked out. That we will help work out. And because we're the nontraditional school, we also we also become a resting place where students really feel seen and heard. When I again talk to prospective students, I tell them that if you show up, you don't need to hide parts of yourself. Be present, show us even the parts you think might make us uncomfortable. And we will be present in return and work to make it safe and supportive to do so.
How does that mentality play out successfully in the school setting?
We've had a number of students come through programs thinking they weren't good enough to go to graduate school, or they hadn't ever really considered the idea because it just sounded hard and too much work—and now they've successfully completed a program. For one student, it had been maybe 40 or 50 years since she had last been in school, but it was one her bucket list to finish her bachelor’s. She completed her degree and at the end of it she was on fire. She started applying to grad school because she was going to go be a therapist and work with seniors, which is so important. She didn't know she could do that when she started. She connected with younger cohorts and they were looking up to her for her wisdom, and she was finding out about herself in new ways. I really admire that courage. When she started her bachelor’s back in the 1970s, she had a binder and notebooks and pencils, and to complete her degree she was going to school on Zoom!
That transition was remarkable for a lot of people, and I image that the School is still undergoing a lot of changes with regard to the pandemic and the digital transition.
One of the ongoing conversations we have in our programs is: how do we continue to foster our community in the digital era, in digital spaces? Because that's where our students are. How do we collectively work with the students to create something that is meaningful and accessible, and not penalize anyone who may not have exactly the same resources? It's a balancing act. But I very much hold it as a “both/and.” We can show up in various spaces, together, and we can remain present to embrace challenges.
And I think it's great! It gives students another space to occupy. Our students already create their own Discord groups, or WhatsApp study groups, and during the pandemic – this is my favorite story – a group of students decided to come to San Francisco, get an Airbnb, and all go to class virtually together. It was so hilarious to be the instructor on Zoom, because one student was walking through with her laptop, and you could see the other groups of students in the other rooms! They know how to create that community and live in those spaces. And to meet them there, we're online synchronously or we’re asynchronous, meaning that the students can do their work around their jobs or around parenting and still get a rock-solid education, incredible friendships, and skills to bring back into the world.
What would you hope for the students to take out into the world from the CIIS?
A lot of our students grew up in educational systems that were not supportive, and many come in with a sense of “I can't do this” or “I'm not very good” or “I will never be able to do research.” And at the end of the program they're saying “I absolutely can.” Watching their personal transformation and providing that time and space to explore so that they can emerge with a very different idea of themselves and their capabilities, that’s what matters.