Heartbeat of the NWU Experience

  • Jacob, Dr. Redding and Gayle standing with their backs to the camera. They are facing Old Main and wearing the department's tshirt.
  • Jacob, Dr. Redding and Gayle standing with their backs to the camera. They are facing Old Main and wearing the department's tshirt.

Nebraska Wesleyan University aims to provide students with lasting experiences unmatched by other universities. Through invaluable resources, extensive efforts of inclusivity and diversity and an 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio, NWU strives to create an environment where all students thrive. Each department has its own way of achieving the goal of exemplifying the university’s efforts to create a fruitful environment. In the Philosophy & Religion Department, professors rely on the student-to-faculty ratio to develop meaningful connections with the students who grace their classrooms and offices.

Many students choose NWU for the relationships they can develop with their faculty members. These strong relationships contribute to an environment where faculty can thrive. The small-town atmosphere surrounding campus, the community of belonging and the opportunity to share what they love with equally passionate students help faculty reach their full potential. When the university invests in faculty, they can focus on investing in their students. Professors want to get to know their students and see them succeed.

Like every NWU student, each faculty member has followed a unique journey to NWU. Assistant Professor of Religion Jonathan Redding didn’t know what he wanted to do until he started studying biblical Greek in college. One of his professors asked him to be a summer research assistant. He was also serving as a youth minister, and he felt that his ministry duties were getting in the way of focusing on his research. The people around him urged him to become a professor. When he began working on his PhD, he knew he was on the right track. Professor of Religion Rita Lester notes that teachers were always important adults in her life. That’s how she found her spark for education. She didn’t know she wanted to teach until she began teaching literacy while pursuing her bachelor’s degree. Professor of Philosophy Justin Skirry originally wanted to go to law school but, after reading some philosophy books on his own, decided to pursue philosophy instead. He adored it so much he kept studying until he had a master’s degree and a PhD.

Professor of Philosophy Lisa Wilkinson always had a passion for learning: she’d read anything and everything. She was fascinated by new perspectives on the world. School was a different ballgame. After weaving in and out of enrollment all the way through high school and to college, she finally found where she fit years later. She enrolled in an evening class on the History of Painting with a professor who encouraged students to think and read about the different histories and cultures the art expressed. They offered her a teaching stipend and a tuition waiver and, as Dr. Wilkinson says, “that was that.” Adjunct Instructor in Philosophy Chris Mitsch found his passion gradually. After exploring a wide variety of subject areas in community college, he found his way to Ohio State where he thought he was going to major in film studies. He took a couple of philosophy classes and finally knew what he wanted to do. Dr. Mitsch created a logic degree (a combination of philosophy and mathematics) and found a spark for teaching in tutoring his classmates along the way.

Each professor’s experiences help them connect with their students. The relationships they foster last long past commencement day. In the words of Dr. Redding, “Once you’re a student of ours, you’ll always be a student of ours.”

As faculty prepare each student for the next step in their individual lives, the connections grow. The faculty care about their students as individuals. And while the relationships change after commencement day, they persist. Dr. Redding recently created an Instagram account to help students past and present stay up-to-date on what’s happening in the department. Social media messages, emails, texts, and even occasional phone calls help faculty keep in touch with graduates and help graduates stay connected to the department’s current students and faculty.

These relationships flourish thanks in large part to the student-to-faculty ratio at Nebraska Wesleyan. Dr. Lester captures the value of small classes: “I like to hear every student, every session, on the material and the questions the material inspires.” Students thrive in the warm, welcoming environment where their professors encourage them to share their ideas and questions. They don’t have to worry about being overlooked.

Even if an idea or question may seem farfetched, students can count on the religion and philosophy faculty to help them pursue their curiosities and questions. The only reason we’ve gotten this far, as Dr. Redding notes, is because we once followed our perhaps-outlandish notions. Faculty meet students where they are and equip them with the tools they need to explore their unique ideas, to analyze them within the context of accepted scholarship and to draw their own conclusions. Dr. Skirry states, “We try to guide them in ways where they can make their passions and desires a reality.”

Senior Proposal and Capstone classes in the philosophy and religion major create the space for students to pursue their own ideas over the course of an entire year. And the faculty encourage students to be creative. This year, religion and philosophy majors are following a wide range of avenues in applying their academic skills to their burning questions: one student is helping Dr. Lester revamp the curriculum for one of her spring courses. Dr. Wilkinson is supporting another student in pursuing connections between the stories of the falls of Satan and Icarus.

As Dr. Skirry noted, the department invests in their students’ pursuit of knowledge on a subject that intrigues them. These individualized mentoring relationships allow students the space to grow and to shape their own convictions. Eventually, some of the relationships develop from student–professor relationships to peer–peer relationships as former students become colleagues, co-authors and friends.

Nebraska Wesleyan offers a transformative education. The experience prepares graduates for success in any field and helps each person develop the skills to be a lifelong learner. Philosophy and religion alumni go on to medical school, law school and divinity school. They graduate with job offers as nurses, nonprofit professionals and teachers. Like all NWU alumni, they carry their knowledge, their skills and their relationships with them to the next stage of their journey, making room at NWU for the next generation of students who will shape and be shaped by Nebraska Wesleyan faculty—the heartbeat of the NWU experience.

Story by Camryn Melroy '23