Alma Mater: The Nourishing Mother

There is a certain rhythm to the academic year that comes with working in higher education. Events and dates serve as markers to the beginning and end of each "season" as we find ourselves welcoming thousands of students onto our campuses for the start of a new fall semester. To me, there is nothing more exciting than this time of year as new freshmen descend, faculty and upper classmen return, and classes begin on campuses throughout the country.

I often quiz these new students as to the meaning of the phrase alma mater since our hope is that they will refer fondly to our institution in such a manner once they graduate. Few know that it means "nourishing or bountiful mother" and fewer still make the connection as to why. But the symbolism of such a reference should not be lost on any of us.

We are all brought into this world by means of a birth mother, placing us squarely on this mortality path and all that comes with it. But for countless people fortunate enough to have access to education, our alma mater is that place which gives birth to our intellectual, personal, social, and professional selves - that institution which launches us into a whole new world of self-discovery and exploration. Consider your own experience as an undergraduate and the way these formative years helped shape and mold you into the person you are today.

While working as the assistant to the president at the University of Utah, I had the privilege of attending an annual event which was, for me, one of the highlights of the entire year. The night before the University-wide Commencement exercises in the spring, a formal dinner was held to recognize those receiving honorary degrees the next day. The president would introduce each honoree and then ask him or her to make any comments. Some came prepared with scripted remarks, others did not.

But without fail, each degree recipient talked about what the institution meant to them as a young student and their experiences of setting foot on campus unsure as to what was before them. They spoke movingly about the faculty member who served as a mentor, the staff who helped them along their way, the life-long friends they met through various clubs or organizations, the intellectual curiosity they experienced as majors were declared and changed multiple times. To be sure, there were disappointments and setbacks for each who spoke, but the common refrain in all remarks was this unrelenting gratitude to their alma mater - to that place and its traditions which imbued them with the attendant confidence to exit its doors knowing that that their degree had prepared them for life ahead.

Unfortunately, access to higher education - and all those experiences an alma mater can provide - is becoming increasingly difficult as state support wanes and tuition invariably increases. According to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, America's states today spend an average 20 percent less per student than seven years ago. These cuts are often justified to fund other pressing state needs. Education, however, is the medicine that treats root causes of society's ills. And, therefore, in the triage of treatment it must remain paramount. Consider this: data shows that, even with troubling tuition hikes, the long-term financial returns from a robust college education far exceed the individual monetary investment for most students.

Aside from the obvious societal benefits that come with educated surgeons, judges, engineers, and first responders, studies suggest that those who attend college exhibit increased levels of political participation and are more likely to attend churches and become involved in various civic causes. They have better health and are more inclined to volunteer and make a difference in their respective communities. They pay more taxes and are less reliant on social, welfare, and government services. For those fortunate enough to study abroad as a student, this is a life-transforming experience that forever alters their world view as they encounter another culture, language, and perspective.

So as we launch yet another academic year, consider what your own alma mater means to you and how you are different as a result of your own experiences with the "nourishing mother." Realizing how your life is immeasurably better from the educational experiences you enjoyed will hopefully spur you to support your own institution and its respective objectives and mission.