Southern Virginia University: Latter-day Saint values and the 'genius of small'

Southern Virginia University is thriving with its LDS environment, academics, new accreditation

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

"BYU is designed to accommodate tens of thousands of students spread across a broad spectrum of academic programs and disciplines," he said. "That's important and necessary, but it's not who we are.

"We're more like Holy Cross," Olsen continued, referring to the 2,800-student Jesuit school in Worcester, Mass. "We're a small liberal arts college with an outstanding faculty and staff and a fairly narrow focus. We're not going to be all things to all people, but what we choose to do we will do very well."

"Liberal arts," Olsen added, smiling, is an academic designation that has little to do with political ideology. A liberal arts college is one that focuses on undergraduate study in the liberal arts and sciences — things like literature, languages, history, mathematics and science.

For example, Whitehead noted, "we don't have any graduate programs at Southern Virginia. But we do a great job of preparing our students to go on to graduate programs at other colleges and universities."

More than 40 percent of SVU graduates pursue advanced degrees, Olsen said.

Upon being appointed to his new position as president of Southern Virginia University, Elder Sybrowsky said that fundraising for capital improvements is a big part of what he is being asked to do. But those improvements are not aimed at turning SVU into BYU East.

"We eventually want to be able to accommodate about 1,200 students, and we need to make some significant improvements to our infrastructure if we're going to be able to do that," Olsen said. "But we don't envision growing significantly larger than that. We like the small liberal arts college model. Frankly, if we decide there is a need and a market for more LDS students than that, we would probably be more inclined to consider creating another school than expanding Southern Virginia much beyond that number."

'Genius of small'

Which is consistent with SVU's commitment to what it calls "the genius of small."

"Both President Sybrowsky and I attended small colleges in our undergraduate years, so we understand the unique educational opportunities at a small school," Whitehead said. "You have more direct interaction with teachers at a small school, more opportunities to participate in classroom discussions. And there is more academic accountability in a small classroom setting. If you're not prepared with the day's assignment, you stick out like a sore thumb. And if you miss a couple of days of class, the teacher will be on the phone trying to find out what the problem is."

"You can't hide in my classes," said Francis MacDonnell, a former lecturer at Yale who has taught history at SVU since 1997.

"This is not a place to sit quietly in the back of the room. We have a lot of discussion. We do a lot of writing. We really get to know the students. And we really do call students if we don't see them in class."

While he acknowledges that there are certain limitations to attending a small liberal arts college — "If you want to major in Arabic or Ukrainian folklore, you can't do that here" — he said he is a "big believer in the 'genius of small.'"

"This is especially true in my discipline," said McDonnell, who is one of a handful of non-LDS professors on campus. "In history, I'm not sure how valuable it is to just fill a kid's head with a bucket of facts, which is pretty much all you can do in big classes with hundreds of students. In small classes we can teach students how to respond to complicated questions, how to do research, how to find answers. That's when a history education is most valuable: when you provide skills that can apply to a lot of different jobs. Because let's face it, nobody is going to go out and open up a history store when they graduate with a history degree."

SVU's students are similarly sold on the "genius of small."

"I loved the small classes," said Parker Bird's fiancée, Bethany, who originally came to SVU to play tennis. "I would've gotten lost at a big school. But this was perfect for me. I fit in here. I had a lot of fun with a lot of great people, and I learned a lot academically and spiritually."

Neal Johnson, Bethany's father, said he was a little apprehensive about his daughter attending SVU, since all three of his older children had attended BYU.

"But this was definitely the right place for her," Johnson said. "She's grown a lot here. Her teachers have mentored her. She's had opportunities to do things she never would have done at a larger school. She's matured personally — especially spiritually. As a father, I couldn't be more pleased."

Both Johnson and Bird referred to the many opportunities for participation that are available to SVU students, from student government to intercollegiate sports to performing arts.

"You don't come here to sit on the sidelines," Olsen observed. "This isn't really a place where you can hide. But it is a place where you can be found."

Email: jwalker@desnews.com

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