The Truth About Academic Rigors

by Jennifer Van Gundy '05

To quell any rampant rumors that the High Sierra Semester consists of day hiking, classroom love fests held under trees in autumn splendor, and evenings roasting s’mores on Star Rock, I have decided to present the facts on the “academic rigors” that everyone hears so much about. With both feet planted firmly on the ground (actually, in a stack of books and papers that need my attention) I hereby set forth to reveal the truth to prospective students, parents, friends, and otherwise curious people.

I keep telling myself that next week will be the week in which I have nothing to do and will sit around in the sun all day. That day never comes. There is always some new activity, some new book assignment, or some grand scheme that keeps me busy. There is a big stack of books with impressive titles that we have read already this semester and when I catch a glimpse of them sitting on my bookshelf I shake my head in amazement. Last week I spent my afternoons reading Aristotle, Beowulf, Anselm, and the like. My evenings in the previous weeks were spent writing papers on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Augustine’s City of God, the Iliad, and the Antigone. Tonight I am supposed to finish Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, write a paper in which Beowulf, St. Perpetua, and Caesar Augustus sit down in the Vatican Library to have a heated discussion about various literary masterpieces, and I also need to develop a worldview statement on environmentalism for my leadership class. Quite honestly, the work load up here can be a bit daunting. The titles on the reading list alone are enough to make anyone think twice. But there is one key difference between the High Sierra Semester and other college classes: the work up here is definitely worth it. No one is going to ask you to read anything that has not been considered a classic by thousands of people for centuries. And they are certainly not going to ask you to do ridiculous time-consuming activities like filling out pointless worksheets, or doing brain-numbing busy work assignments that insult your intelligence and subtly insinuate that you do not have any abilities beyond those of a trained hamster, all for a hefty tuition fee of course. None of that here — instead the opposite problem exists: you will be challenged whether you want to be or not.

I would also argue that the assignments up here have a different feel to them. Things just are not the same. Classes sometimes meet outside, in teacher’s homes, or in cozy chairs around the fireplace. Drab historical events are dusted off and brought to life in new and often hysterical ways. Last week the famed Council of Nicea met in our plenary session. Church history students donned togas (we had some very interestingly patterned togas) and reenacted the famous council against the heresy of Arius — the result of which was the Nicean Creed. In earlier weeks, the leadership class went on a five-day backpacking trip, plenary students watched Cyclops get his eye stabbed out by Odysseus, everyone attended a Benedictine Retreat led by church history students, and Antigone faced off against her Uncle Creon in a rather unorthodox reenactment of the famed play. Coming up is the much anticipated Beowulf Sleepover. Those of you who are familiar with the story know that this will not be some average popcorn, pigtails, pajamas, and pizza giggle fest. It will definitely be a night to remember.

I will not lie to you. The stress of the work load can be a bit overwhelming at times but it is worth doing, worth struggling through. I find myself changed in ways I did not expect. Suddenly, I find pieces of my faith falling into place. My view of God makes more sense. Little fragments of things I had been told my entire life suddenly form the big picture. Thoughts from philosophy correspond to the writings of the early church fathers which point to historical and artistic movements. And overarching it all I can now see how God fits into the story of the world. I have spent hours reading and writing this semester but I also think I have done some of my best work up here. I have been frustrated and annoyed and challenged and stretched by the workload but I have grown so much that I do not even care. It is a far better thing for me to be challenged, to have the bar set high in order to cause me to strive than to never know how high I could go. The s’mores and the day hikes and the glories of nature do exist up here but they coincide with a lot of challenges. Challenges that (if you are up for them) will change your life and your character in such amazing ways that looking back, the struggle it took to get there will not even matter.