The Trinity Model: Adaptation and Unexpected Leadership

Talking about the importance of a liberal arts education is preaching to the choir when addressing Trinity alumni. The translatable nature of liberal arts skills to address new challenges and problems is demonstrated in this issue of the magazine, which recounts powerful stories of Trinity alumni who are on the front lines of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite news and commentary that question the value of higher education more broadly and a liberal arts education more specifically, it is clear that a Trinity education prepares students for meaningful jobs and lifelong learning and readies them to be adaptable, unexpected leaders when facing challenges that no one anticipated.    

Joanne Berger-Sweeney
Photo by Julie Bidwell

This is what a Trinity College liberal arts education looks like through my eyes. Fundamentally, we teach our students how to learn. As a neuroscientist, I define learning as the way we adapt to an ever-changing environment. Using that definition, the Trinity community has proven itself to be an excellent learning organization over the last several months.            

We adapted to a rapidly spreading pandemic by pivoting to remote learning, allowing our employees to work from home, and making policy adjustments to ensure that our students could complete an unprecedented semester. Beyond campus, the community supported our students financially and socially—alumni and families contributed to a fund that provided immediate financial relief for current students, and in a show of solidarity across generations, our alumni wrote individual messages of hope to all students who completed their degrees in the Class of 2020 but were unable to participate in the “normal” Commencement ceremony. During this crisis, we demonstrated adaptability, care, and support to our community in so many tangible ways.      

Simultaneously, we all have adapted to the reality of life on Zoom. Alumni had reunion socials and meetings on Zoom. Trinity employees met on Zoom to plan for a very different fall semester, with faculty members creating a new calendar for Academic Year 2020–21 and training to deliver an excellent Trinity experience whether online, hybrid, or in person. Our athletic coaches created ways to keep their teams engaged and active while physically distanced. Meanwhile, many administrators and staff members learned to wield a tape measure to accommodate physical distancing, became toilet counting and sanitizing experts, testified at state commissions about how students may behave responsibly, developed quarantine protocols, and determined the logistics of grab-and-go meals. All of this is evidence of a learning organization operating at its best.       

And so many stories that I hear make it clear that you, our alumni, are adapting and finding solutions to questions that others never thought to ask. You are boldly adapting to a changing environment, and many of you are leading in situations because you are called to do so, not always because you want to. Ultimately you are demonstrating praxes that others want to follow, which is the essence of leadership. I’ve heard about Trinity alumni who are organizing COVID-response efforts in their communities; those who are acting as the moral conscience in their sectors and reminding others of the damage in the pandemic’s wake; those who are acting as first responders; and those who are reminding us of how we need to emerge stronger after the crisis.    Bantams are bold thinkers, we are open-minded, and we are able to analyze facts as we make decisions that affect all of us. We take up leadership when we are called. And during this time, many of us have been called. We do not shy away from challenges that we have not seen before. And the skills learned at Trinity translate across careers and time.

Whenever I speak to prospective students considering Trinity, they are overwhelmed by the success of our alumni. Our graduates demonstrate the power of the education we provide. We hope that students come to Trinity to find their own success, as we keep in mind that the success they see in you is often the model to which they aspire.              

I am proud of the adaptable learning and leadership that is part of our Trinity DNA. I am proud of the culture we have developed and continue to nurture at the college to support these skills. As we face new challenges and new problems, our liberal arts education will help us to face them.          

So when I’m asked about the value of a Trinity education, the answer is easy: it’s adaptable, it prepares leaders for a lifetime, and most important, it’s priceless.