Let’s expand what it means to be smart

When our Marketing and Strategic Communications team introduced the concepts behind the Rethink Smart creative strategy, I must confess that it connected with me immediately.

Not simply as the University president looking at the challenges our students face, but also as someone who walked in those same shoes when I began college many years ago with a love for college sports but without a clue of what would be my chosen major. I knew I wanted to find a good job so I chose a major in the business school, but I was still searching for my purpose, my ‘why.’ I considered law school or even changing my major to mining engineering, but doing so would have required me to add a year to my studies, a deal breaker for me and my parents.

I did not get excited about my future until I found my way into the honors economics program. I gained access to professors who mentored me and shared their passion for the field and opened
my eyes to the myriad professional opportunities it offered. This ignited my own interest, set me on a path to graduate school and ultimately the career path that I would pursue for the next 40 years.

My path and experience isn’t unique. In fact, it is something that’s all too common. Despite that, my alma mater was not set up to accommodate it. To allow students opportunities to try and fail, to learn to adapt to change and prepare for an uncertain world were not part of the higher education plan, let alone its lexicon, in the 20th century.

We’re now past the early part of the 21st century. The world is vastly different than it was for my generation, and the needs of today’s college-age individuals are different than they were for many of us who finished school in the last century. Globalization and rapid technological change has laid bare the need to redefine the college experience and what we can offer prospective students who are preparing for a world that is not just different from the one that their parents faced but different from what they themselves expected just a year ago.

Western Michigan University is building on the strengths of what college contributes to the student’s experience—a strong academic base at a dynamic research university and all the best aspects of a residential college experience. What we are offering in addition to those attributes is the promise of giving students the space to find out about themselves, what drives them to get out of bed every day, to do more than what’s required and to push beyond what they thought was possible in pursuing their futures.

You may remember reading about our Think Big initiative in this magazine. One of the products of that large-scale, design-thinking effort was the development of an identity that could express what makes WMU distinctive from others in the higher education field.

Think Big showed us that by amplifying our strengths in academics, mental and physical well-being and career exploration, we had the potential to connect with 21st century college students and demonstrate that finding their path to success in the world didn’t mean relying on someone else’s definition of “smart.” From that, our team did the research and applied the creative energy to a strategy that calls on those considering college to Rethink Smart.

We’ve witnessed the talent of faculty members who are not simply leaders in their respective fields but are also committed to helping students pursue their interests. Like the economics professors in my past who regaled me with real-world applications for the concepts that had previously lain flat in textbooks, WMU’s faculty have a reputation for connecting subject matter with the possibilities and helping students see themselves in thriving future careers.

You’ll see that reflected in this issue when you read about the new Sleeping Giant Capital investment firm. Established by Drs. Doug Lepisto and Derrick McIver in the Haworth College of Business, this new entity will bring businesses, MBA students and entrepreneurs together to establish a leadership pipeline to build continuity in enterprises that did not have a chain of succession. Together, the businesses and aspiring leaders will discover ways to thrive.

In addition to connecting students to academics that inspire them, we’re also helping them discover their abilities to recalibrate their goals when the world hands them inevitable setbacks. Physician assistant student Garrett Bazany learned this about himself well before coming to Western. After a spinal column injury during his teen years left him paralyzed, he was determined to return to his active lifestyle. And when he set his sights on a career in health care, he found a fit in the WMU physician assistant program. He’s already envisioning a future where he’ll be an advocate for patients who face life- changing diagnoses.

These are but two of the many examples of how our University is demonstrating that we are preparing our students for vibrant, thriving futures.

We’re all facing challenges of some form on a daily basis. Those who will weather our current economic reality the best are those who know that a single setback doesn’t equal permanent disaster, and that building, or rebuilding, a future based on what we love to do is a recipe for success.

I am excited about the future for Western Michigan University, for what we represent to those who enroll here and how we can demonstrate the possibilities to our prospective applicants through Rethink Smart. If you are an alumnus, I hope that it will inspire you to remember your time on campus and reflect on the great start that WMU gave you.


Edward Montgomery, Ph.D.