Working with Wheaton Passage students

This year I signed up for another turn as a faculty member participant in Wheaton College’s intro to college program, called Wheaton Passage. Technically, this program is a class worth two credit hours (CE 131: Introduction to Spiritual Formation), and is available to incoming freshmen and transfer students.

The program is unique. There are many similar transition-to-college programs, but Wheaton’s is the only one that has 30-40 full-time faculty members at the core of it (about 20% of the total number of faculty), who volunteer their time ahead of the busy Fall semester to serve as mentors, leaders, and guides to explore a wide range of themes and issues with assigned student groups. The program has several tracks:

  • Wilderness — involves spending ten days hiking as a small group in a remote area such as on hiking trails near Lake Superior in Minnesota, or in the Apostle Islands in northern Wisconsin
  • Northwoods — students in this track gather at HoneyRock, Wheaton’s Outdoor Center for Leadership Development, for about four days of small group bonding and activities
  • Equestrian — students gather at HoneyRock with a focus on learning about horses, how to care for them, and how to bond with them in various activities
  • Urban — this track has students spend several days at Wheaton’s Center for Urban Engagement (CUE) in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago, learning about and doing outreach activities with the local community
Each track does its thing, and then they all converge together up at HoneyRock for about six days, timed to occur the week before classes start for the Fall semester. This is the period of time when faculty join students. Each faculty member is paired with a small group of them, usually no more than 7-9 people, and helps to lead them through various experiential learning activities, group discussions, and a service project. Group discussions are fed from several assigned readings that are to be done in advance of coming to HoneyRock and focused on various themes such as “Life of the Mind”, “Faith in Practice”, and “Spiritual Formation”. Students are required to write several reflection pieces on predefined discussion questions in addition to in person conversation.
This year’s event was the largest ever gathering for a program that has been around for 49 years, with almost half of the incoming freshman class participating, or about 300 students. After the days up at HoneyRock conclude, the Passage program continues on campus at Wheaton into the middle of the Fall semester (what we call A Quad). Faculty members meet individually with each student in their assigned group, usually for a meal at the campus dining hall or during a coffee/tea break. We also get together for a final time as a group for dinner. During this A Quad period, students are required to submit additional assignments, graded by each faculty member, including the writing of a personal college vision statement for Christian liberal arts learning.
Frankly, it’s a lot of work, and the time together at HoneyRock, in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, is particularly intense. Yet it is one of the very best things that this college does every year. Of course, it facilitates a strong sense of community and relationship building among students, but that is also true of participating faculty. We all get to know one another a lot better on a personal level than we ever could achieve otherwise. Among other experiences, spending six hours or more sitting next to another faculty member on a bus drive tends to engender this.
For me, there are tremendous benefits, especially in that I get to establish closer relationships with a small group of incoming freshmen in a way that I would normally never get the opportunity to do. It is very rewarding to get to know students and the bonds established during Passage last throughout their entire career at the college and frequently, beyond.

HoneyRock as a place and as a part of Wheaton College is special to me because my in-laws live and work there full-time as unpaid volunteers, but also because I support graduate students who live and study up there full-time who are part of Wheaton’s Outdoor and Adventure Leadership degree program. As part of that, I’m responsible for the library collection housed at HoneyRock. So the faculty and staff at HoneyRock are friends and valued colleagues. In addition, my family and I enjoy spending time there, something we’ve done all our married life.

What was particularly noteworthy this year is that the library was the most well-represented department/group out of all faculty. We had four out of nine library faculty members who participated in Passage. Another interesting and positive feature of this year’s group of faculty was that in terms of gender, we were split about equally between men and women (usually, there are more male than female faculty who participate).

Maple leaf with a striking pattern


Top half of a fox skull found in the woods


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