Then and Now: Liberal Arts Seminars Launch More than Academics

by Nancy Wehrbein (’75)

From the start, poverty has been a frequent topic among Liberal Arts Seminars (LAS), the first-semester courses designed to introduce college-level research, writing and critical thinking centered around an interdisciplinary topic. Jessica (Wilkins) Wiederspan (’01) entered NWU soon after the Liberal Arts Seminars took their place in the general education curriculum.

“I became interested in poverty during my Liberal Arts Seminar and I have been passionate about it ever since. In fact, some of the questions I raised in the first paper I wrote touch on the same issues my dissertation will address,” she said more than 13 years later.

The LAS section Wiederspan selected in 1997 was titled “Bag Ladies, Hobos, Squeegee People, and Welfare Queens: Understanding Contemporary Poverty and Homelessness.” It was taught by Heather Bullock, a former NWU faculty member in psychology with a strong interest in social discrimination.

Today, Wiederspan is a doctoral student in the Joint Program in Social Work and Sociology at the University of Michigan and has worked for several years for the Michigan Program on Poverty and Social Welfare Policy at the Ford School for Public Policy. For her dissertation, she plans to look at how people make sense of economic opportunity and the “American Dream,” the idea that people who work hard and play by the rules should be able to succeed—all this at a time when some sights are dimmed by the economic downturn.

“After I finish school I hope to teach sociology and/or social work at a liberal arts college, which has been my dream since I was a student at Nebraska Wesleyan,” she said. “Never doubt the power of a Liberal Arts Seminar in helping to develop one’s life trajectory!”