Interview with Sandy Irby

Sandy Irby CarouselUnbound: What is your role in the education system?

Sandy: I am the Director of the Communities of Learning (CoL) program at Union Presbyterian Seminary, located in Richmond, VA.

Unique to Union and currently funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment, CoL is an innovative program for newly-admitted students designed to help ease their transition into seminary – both the academic study and the community life. The summer before they start classes, new students are given the opportunity to engage in theological study and conversation in small groups comprised of other students, alumni/ae mentors, and faculty advisors. CoL is an online learning experience, which allows participants the flexibility to join in these discussions from wherever they happen to be during the summer, as long as they have internet access. 

Unbound: At what type of school do you work?

Sandy: Union Presbyterian Seminary is a two-hundred-year-old private graduate theological institution of the PC(USA) that offers master and doctoral level degrees in Theology, Ministry, and Christian Education. Union’s main academic campus, located in Richmond’s historic Northside, is a full residential program. Its Charlotte campus is a commuter campus, allowing students to continue to work full- or part-time while taking classes on weekends. There is also a third campus, the Extended Campus Program, which is a hybrid program with classes that combine online and on-campus study. 

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I love how the teaching/learning process works both ways. The learner teaches, the teacher learns.
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Unbound: Tell me about the demographics of your students.

Sandy: There are about 220 students currently enrolled at Union, of which 57% are women and 43% men. While 67% of our students are members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), 33% are affiliated with other Christian denominations. In a typical year, our students represent 24 states and 7 countries. About 39% of Richmond campus students are under 30 years of age, while about 26% of the Charlotte campus students are under the age of 40. The average student age is 41. 

Unbound: Why do you work in education?

COL Pic 3
CoL Face-to-Face Gathering

Sandy: Along with a firm conviction that education is critical for the well-being of the individual as well as the community, I can honestly say that I work in education because I love to learn, and I love participating in the learning process of others. You can’t teach without also learning something yourself— learning something about the topic, learning something about others, learning something about yourself. And, once you learn something, you’re never really the same again. Learning opens your mind, expands your worldview.

I love how the teaching/learning process works both ways. The learner teaches, the teacher learns. This has become particularly evident to me through my work with CoL. The program’s strong emphasis on learning in community helps students develop an appreciation for the richness of the diversity present in theological belief and perspective. As they learn to make room for and to engage meaningfully with every voice in the conversation (even those with whom they disagree!), students come to see the value of collaborative learning and problem-solving. As program director, I see great promise in the way our “communities of learning” paradigm contributes not only to deeper learning, but also to stronger community.

Unbound: Do your worldview and beliefs about religion and ethics affect your work in the school system?

Sandy: My deep appreciation for the importance of learning and being in community with one another—remaining ever open to new and different perspectives, building relationships through learning with and from others, working collaboratively for the common good—stems from my religious worldview that we are all children of God: all one family, all one body.

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I’d advocate for more open-ended opportunities for students to listen to and learn from their fellow students, to explore multiple worldviews and perspectives, and to think collaboratively about difficult issues, ones with no obvious solution or single “right” answer.
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Unbound: What is the most challenging part of your work?

Sandy: Like I said earlier, Communities of Learning is a pilot program that we designed and built here at Union, thanks to the generous support of Lilly Endowment. We embarked upon this new adventure four years ago and have two more years of grant funding remaining.

COL Pic 2The good news is that CoL has met with heartening success! We see it contributing to the academic and community life of the seminary in important ways. As a result, this pilot program is now considered an integral component of the seminary’s overall mission to prepare students for ministry. A Communities of Learning fund-raising campaign has been initiated to support the program beyond our six-year grant.

The challenge inherent in this good news, however, will be in actually securing this funding. As educators are all too aware, funding is a persistent issue and is particularly so when adding new programs to budgets already stretched thin.

Unbound: What is the best part?

Sandy: I love watching as perspectives are broadened and relationships are formed – and then seeing these same benefits carry over into the classroom as our new students enter their seminary studies. They are not only more confident in formulating and expressing their own beliefs and perspectives, but also more open to listening to and learning from those of others. At Union, we’re tasked with preparing our students for ministry. And, ministry is all about learning, living, and being in community.

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Once you learn something, you’re never really the same again.
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Unbound: Based on your experience, if you could magically enact one large-scale change for education in general, what would it be? Why?

COL Pic 1Sandy: I guess this comes as no big surprise, given my responses so far, but I would love to see greater emphasis placed on small group learning experiences. And by that, I don’t mean more “group projects” where one person ends up doing all the work while the others sit idly by (speaking from experience as one who usually got stuck doing all the work!). Rather, I’d advocate for more open-ended opportunities for students to listen to and learn from their fellow students, to explore multiple worldviews and perspectives, and to think collaboratively about difficult issues, ones with no obvious solution or single “right” answer.

The best part is that students who learn in community come to appreciate and value not just the perspective of their fellow learner, but the fellow learner himself or herself.

This, to me, is learning with legs on it. This is education that sends people out into the world better equipped to live peaceably and work productively with one another for the good of all.

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