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Spring breakers take inventory of life, love and leadership

18 ASU students participate in life-changing experiential course offered by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership


ASU students pose for a group photo in a nature setting.

The 2022 "Leading a Life of Meaning" cohort in Prescott, Arizona.

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March 21, 2022

For students across the country, spring break is an opportunity to reset mid-semester and let loose from school. But for 18 Arizona State University students, the week of March 7–13 was a chance to reflect on larger-than-life questions and to engage in activities to achieve a fulfilled life experience.

They enrolled in CEL 394 — Leading a Life of Meaning, an experiential course offered annually by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and LeadershipThe group traveled to Prescott, Arizona, for an immersive six-day program of extensive readings, dialogue, bonding and community service. 

”This course has made me think differently about every aspect of my life,” wrote student Sophia Herman. “The blend of liberal and experiential education changed something in me. It was exactly what I needed to get out of the rut I’ve been in.”

Through this course, students from a variety of schools retreated to Prescott to read texts ranging from Aristotle and Rumi to Toni Morrison and Wendell Berry. Based on the readings, they brought to bear their own life experiences — to understand concepts of love, friendship, work, community and identity in relation to living an examined life.

These studies were then expanded through practical experiences of service work, meditation and films such as "Good Will Hunting" and "Pride and Prejudice."

Student reading at front of class.

ASU student Olivia Stanley reads to classmates.

“Grounding the internal conversations about meaning with why we need to have those conversations for ourselves and for the world was especially helpful in making these lessons be something that last a lifetime and not just a week after we get back,” said Kayleigh Steele, who is pursuing a major in data science at ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences and a minor in civic and economic thought and leadership at the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

In the afternoons, students completed written assignments, reflected among themselves, participated in a trail building project and a “where I’m from” poetry recitation, and mailed a gratitude letter. The readings were completed as a group and, combined with discussions over meals and Socratic seminars, totaled seven hours per day.

Leading a Life of Meaning is taught by Susan Carrese, clinical assistant professor, and Carol McNamara, associate director for public programs for the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. 

Still, there was time for s’mores, hikes, charades, making snowmen and new friends,” Carrese said.

This course is intended to develop a tight cohort of ASU students from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds who encounter liberal education, classic texts and Socratic seminars in an intensive, supportive and beautiful environment.

— ASU Clinical Assistant Professor Susan Carrese

The assessment for the course was also designed to allow students to home in on liberal learning.

“In this course, we focus on a deepened understanding of classical and contemporary texts, and on creating a place for students to reflect on their own personal and professional education and paths through life,” McNamara said. “The course’s assessment challenges students to engage with poetry and political philosophy to develop strong reading, writing and communication skills.”

Spanning works from Ancient Greece to modern life, students acquired a new vocabulary for understanding concepts of fulfillment, love, work, leisure and community. Through an intensive cohort experience, they developed a sense of intellectual community and shared pursuit of self-understanding and friendship. They discussed issues regarding work-life balance, identity, leadership and service. Finally, the service project inspired them to become active members of their communities.

“Each year, Professor McNamara and I have the privilege of spending six days with students in Prescott, and we are always amazed by how much this learning experience helps them cultivate critical thinking, to passionately pursue a fulfilled life, lead through inspirational example, develop stronger writing and communication skills, and become engaged actors in their communities as a result of the seminar setting, conversations, activities and experiences we shared during this extraordinary time together,” Carrese said.

CEL 394 — Leading a Life of Meaning is a part of the list of courses offered by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The school combines philosophy, history, economics and political science to examine great ideas and solve contemporary problems. Courses such as Comparative Political Thought; Debating Capitalism; and Politics and Leadership in the Age of Revolutions: 1776-1826 prepare students for careers in such fields as business, law, public office, philanthropy, teaching and journalism, among others. To learn more about the school, visit scetl.asu.edu.

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