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What One Student Learned from the Catalyst Badge (Part 2 of 3)

Last week, we published a blog collecting what we’ve learned from students, administrators, and employers around our badging work. We asked Sam Holley, a recent graduate of Georgetown University and participant in our inaugural badging cohort, to reflect on his experience as a student pursuing a Catalyst Badge. Next week we will feature a post written by Erika Cohen-Derr, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement at Georgetown.

I spent my first years as an undergraduate at Georgetown University poised for defense in social situations. Whether at a party or in class, there inevitably came a point in conversation when the question “So, what do you do?” arose. My answer stood out because of its brevity. “I teach SAT classes, I’m in a campus ministry, and… I take some classes…” I felt I had to defend my lack of “impressive” activities. Rarely did I explain the truth: that I set aside regular time for reflection, reading, self-analysis, and relationships with people important to me. Although I didn’t always use this blocked-out time as I intended, I wanted space for it in my schedule.

When I did explain this, however, I learned I didn’t need to defend. Ninety percent of my peers’ responses were positive, some form of either “Wow, that’s so cool. I really respect that” or “I wish I had the time/energy/flexibility/freedom to do that. I wish that was an option for me.” For many students it isn’t an option, whether because of pressure from parents, peers, jobs, the future, etc., or because of internally-imposed barriers which students do not know how to overcome.

I recalled these interactions during my junior and senior years, when I served as a member of the Digital Badging Project Team—a group convened to explore the potential of, and then launch, a digital badge for Georgetown undergraduates. Over two years we designed and piloted the Catalyst Digital Badge, to be awarded to students who demonstrated the characteristics of a catalyst: those students who make lasting, positive change in their environments. Because of Georgetown’s Jesuit heritage and its emphasis on discernment and reflection, our “twist” on the catalytic individuals we sought to identify was that they would not only catalyze change, but also that they would do so from a thoughtful, reflective place.

While on the team, I continually remembered my peers’ responses to my anomalous schedule. I remembered how they wished they could set aside time for reflection, personal development, mentorship —just for stepping back from the ceaseless demands incumbent upon them. And, recalling these statements as the team developed the Catalyst Badge, I realized the badge has the potential to improve some of the negative aspects of Georgetown’s culture.

The Catalyst Badge provides an institutionally validated context for students to make meaning from their experiences and to step aside from the constant demands placed upon them. By participating in the pilot project for the badge, students had time built into their schedule to reflect on their experience, meet with a mentor, and integrate different aspects of their lives to form a coherent sense of identity and purpose. They had a space to figure out how their determination and actions to make change in their environments fit into the other aspects of who they are. The deep desire to dedicate time to these matters that I’d already seen in my peers became concrete as students participating in the Catalyst Badge Pilot Project expressed their enthusiasm for questions of identity, purpose and personal development.

I came to realize this context for reflection and integration was made possible not only by the process and scaffolding provided to those seeking the badge, but also by students’ knowledge that they were doing an “activity” which could be listed on their resumes. Each step of the way as we designed the badge, members of the Digital Badging Project Team questioned whether the value of the badge was not primarily its potential to transform the students seeking it. At times, people suggested transitioning the project from a Digital Badging initiative to a process for mentorship and reflection that could be incorporated through university systems.

While we agreed the most exciting aspect of the Catalyst Badge was its potential to transform students, we realized it wouldn’t be sufficient merely to provide a program for personal development and mentorship, for this wouldn’t fit seamlessly into their busy schedules. Instead, they would feel they were outliers, setting aside space in their schedule for things other than “impressive” activities or jobs. Just as I spent my first years on the Hilltop poised to defend my schedule, students seeking personal development without any institutional validation would be swimming against a culture of competition and pre-professionalism. A small subset of Georgetown students will do so regardless of the difficulty, but students’ transformation should be an inherent part of a liberal education rather than an aberration discouraged by our systems.

By my final year of college, I’d inadvertently multiplied my list of activities. By focusing on who I wanted to be rather than on my resume, I developed professionally as well as personally. I both discovered new passions and learned what I could bring to the table in the adult world. My experience confirms what many modern employers are realizing: a person’s character and their so-called “soft skills” reveal more about their potential for professional success than do technical skills. The discipline of setting aside time—for reflection, integration, and personal development—is, therefore, a get-ahead skill par excellence. The Catalyst Badge not only transforms students and awakens their interior lives; further, by so doing, it prepares them for post-graduation employment and validates their readiness for employers.

–Sam Holley, Georgetown University ’16


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