Defying Expectations, Redefining Dreams: A Look at The Woods College of Advancing Studies

To many undergraduates at Boston College, the Woods College of Advancing Studies might appear somewhat shrouded in mystery. Existing outside the realm of the educational experience familiar to most BC undergraduates, it would be easy to dismiss the Woods College as simply a “night school.”

To do this would be to neglect a narrative of enormous consequence to the character of Boston College.

A recent collection of stories and memoirs written by students and faculty of WCAS entitled Defying Expectations: Redefining Dreams captures the “mosaic” essence of the Woods College. Its pages contain the soulful accounts of many WCAS graduates, uniquely detailing, as the book describes, “decades of student, faculty and staff experiences: dreams deferred and recaptured, adventures, struggles, triumphs over adversity, noble achievements and transformed lives.”

The spirit of these tales and the Woods College as a whole has constantly been particularly inspiring for David Goodman, academic dean for the Woods College. To Goodman, the integrity and mission of the college is compelling to the point that it should serve as a model for the character which higher education should stand for.

“I am really nervous about the state of higher education right now,” Goodman said. “I think education is in a pretty dangerous place where it’s lost a lot of its soul, and the value proposition of going into large debt and not having the type of job market on the back end. It’s a question of social responsibility and ethics.”

Originally hailing from Los Angeles, Goodman’s interdisciplinary education in psychology, philosophy, and theology eventually brought him to practice clinical psychology, as he still does in the evenings and on weekends. While teaching a summer philosophy class at the Woods College several years ago, Goodman became enamored by the passion he saw in its student body.

Goodman found that Woods College students had a capacity to build off of their own experiences and create conversations that truly came to life.

“These students are working, typically, full-time and if not full-time, half-time for sure,” Goodman said. “They’re taking that real-life experience and trying to finish their degrees, so I really loved the conversations in that course–it was really just lived life and people trying to bring that to the classroom. You have that with a mix of Morrissey Arts and Science students, and the type of conversation that creates is amazing.”

Equally responsible for creating and sustaining this unique breed of dialogue, however, is the professionally and academically diverse faculty of WCAS, who bring their intellectual maturity to the table. The faculty of the Woods College can essentially be broken down into thirds, beginning first with “day school” faculty from the main undergraduate colleges of BC, and the second consisting of professors and academics who are “cherry-picked” from nearby schools as required by program and course needs. The final third of the teaching staff is built uniquely, and lacks the traditional academic staffing of professors and faculty members: The rest of the staff is composed of subject-relevant professionals and industry leaders who have taken up the task of teaching about their discipline.

This professional emphasis runs through the heart of the Woods College’s mission, as the stories of success in Defying Expectations often suggest. Though still built on a foundation of traditional educational values, the academic areas of focus at the Woods College are constantly evolving to meet the demands of the ever-changing world marketplace, according to Goodman.

“The desire is still to remain a place that is flexible, rigorous, and accessible–and that’s the heartbeat,” Goodman said, emphasizing the character at the core of the school. “But we’re wanting to do a really careful assessment of ‘What do the various marketplaces right now in the world need?’ So we’re creating programs and equipping students to actually match those needs. We need to have our finger on the pulse of what’s most needed in the world right now, respond to that, and build curriculum accordingly.”

A focus on introducing new areas of study and developing a robust certificate program has been at the heart of these efforts to remain current, and the past two years have seen a broad expansion of the course offerings at the Woods College. Among these new focus areas are master’s programs in applied economics and cyber security policy and governance, as well as an intention to launch a master’s in health care administration this summer. In addition, the Woods College is actively adding to its undergraduate and graduate certificate programs, which currently offer eight certificates for undergraduate students and four for graduate students.

Though the areas of study in the Woods College are constantly advancing, the “heartbeat” and philosophical ambitions of the college remain constant. The increased focus on remaining current and practical at the Woods College has not distracted the institution from the core educational and ethical tenets upon which it was built. Though Goodman’s concern about higher education’s becoming a mere resume piece is considerable, he has said that first observing and now working at BC has given him great hope with regards to honoring the core philosophical values of higher education.

“I’ve always from a distance looked at Boston College and I’ve always thought, ‘This place is doing it,’” Goodman said with a lighthearted, but serious, tone. “Their interdisciplinary work, the ways that students are brought in and the opportunities and resources that they are given to do important work in the world, the sensibilities that are engendered, the excellence they’re called to.”

Goodman went on to explain that while this excellence is notably visible from an external standpoint, after having a year and a half on the Heights, he notes that this rings even truer when looked at internally.

“I’ve always seen that from a distance, and being here you would think that I’d be like, ‘Oh man, well, I see how the sausages are made now,’ or, ‘It’s not so pretty and every place has their stuff in the closet,’” Goodman said. “I will actually tell you that I am more of a believer now in BC, having been here for a year. It’s given me heart, that education can be done in such a way that is deeply ethical and responsible.”

Reading Defying Expectations, it is obvious that the Woods College student is a special breed.  Seeking higher education as well as personal and professional advancement while juggling professional endeavors is no small undertaking, and this character trait of always aspiring to improve is obvious in the pages of the book. According to Goodman, this dedication is a call to duty, and the philosophy of the faculty must align with the lofty goals of the college and its matriculates. Working with students of this nature and this character must be done thoroughly and with integrity.

“There’s this twofold piece which is, ‘What does it mean to be a part of the formation of these students who already have so much under their belt, and have already advanced so much in life?’” Goodman said of this task. “How do we hold them to a higher level of excellence and continue their formation? All the while, encouraging and nourishing their ability to finally get to this place, which is graduation, which is being able to fulfill what for many people is this dream of finally finishing college. I think it’s that twofold deep formation and call to excellence.”

Surely, reading through the numerous stories of Defying Expectations illuminates something fundamental about humankind. When the kind of determination found in the pages of this book is acted upon with the correct resources, there is a sublimity to the product which cannot be understated.

In a closing reflection on the school and the countless success stories in Defying Expectations and beyond, Goodman offered a reflection on the journey of the Woods graduate, a story that starts, often, with a student facing hurdles which would have prevented them from ever imagining that BC could be an option for them. But something encourages them to get back, and the steps that follow are crucial.

“They get back in the door here, they’re encouraged and they take a class,” Goodman said after some thought. “A faculty member inspires them back into this deep recognition of what education can bring to life for them, and how it can actually help them move into the next level of what their life can be. They’re working, they have all of these responsibilities and they cobble together their education. I think about Marty Walsh’s story of how many nights he would sit on Beacon Street in his car and think ‘I can’t do this. I’m so tired and I have nothing left.’ But something in his mind would say, ‘Ok, just one more night.’”  

“With enough of the groundswell of the faculty and everyone else involved, they finish,” Goodman continued. “They find this deep sense of accomplishment, a Boston College degree, access, and connection, and lived relationship to this network, and a better sense and a clear sense how they can hear what the world needs from them. And hopefully with that, better positioning to respond to those calls from having a degree, and having a degree from Boston College.”

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

February 8, 2016