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Course Prepares Upperclassmen for Life’s ‘Pivotal Moments’

by Adam Zielonka ’16 Jan 11, 2022

Imagine a global pandemic breaking out right before you graduate college and join the workforce. Or, picture being a person of color preparing to begin post-graduate life at a time when protests against racism and police brutality grow more widespread than ever.

The events of 2020 and 2021 left many uncertain about the world around us. In the spring 2021 semester, a group of DeSales students had the opportunity to reflect on the personal challenges they were facing while earning academic credit for their work. 

Scott Mattingly, Ed.D., DSU’s associate dean of academic life, taught Pivotal Moments: Fulfilling Your Potential in Times of Change to a class of 10 seniors and juniors. The one-credit elective course met once a week and served as a test run for a course that eventually may be added to the general education curriculum.

An article from The Chronicle of Higher Education spotlighted the course in May, and Mattingly’s students seemed to have an overwhelmingly positive response.

“It’s just such a great course because it gives you so much perspective about not only life in general, but also about yourself,” says Framberly Matos ’21. “It helped me a lot in a time of crisis. ... The way that it was structured made it a lot easier to be engaged in the course, so I really enjoyed that.”

Mattingly recognized during 2020 that students could benefit from having a capstone course that served as a space to process current events and life’s critical junctures, whether personal, local, or societal. When the common phrase “pivotal moments” came to his mind as a course title, Mattingly says it felt right on a number of levels. 

“The word ‘pivot’ doesn’t tell you which direction you’re going,” Mattingly says. “It doesn’t tell you if it’s going to be easy or difficult. It doesn’t tell you anything very specific—it just tells you, ‘This is a moment that’s going to change you.’ I liked that sort of open-ended sense of possibility.”

Mattingly also serves as co-chair of a working group focused on revising DeSales’ general education curriculum. The group recently launched a workshop series for the full faculty, which will be just one part of a larger, multi-year process. Teaching Pivotal Moments allowed Mattingly to see how the course would fare with students and help the University decide whether to add it to the standard curriculum in the future.

Spring 2021 was an optimal time to teach the pilot course, in the midst of what Mattingly calls the “twin pandemics” of COVID-19 and racism, but its content is adaptable. If he taught Pivotal Moments a few years ago, Mattingly says he might have focused on other topics dominating headlines, such as the #MeToo movement, athletes kneeling during the national anthem, or the changing climate.

“Certainly, this time period that we’re in right now is in many ways unparalleled,” he says. “Some of that is because of what is happening and the global impact of it, but then you also have to factor in how interconnected we are globally, the ease of communication.”

Mattingly assigned readings to serve as jumping-off points for student-led discussions. He says he felt privileged to read his students’ written reflections and hear what they had to share—so much of what they shared was powerful and often challenged him. 

In turn, students were grateful that Mattingly let everyone say their piece during class, wasn’t judgmental, and handled serious or controversial topics carefully.

“In the things we went over, he was very much neutral, very much understanding of everyone’s points of view,” says Harrison Sloan ’23, a psychology major. “How he handled it was perfect, getting everyone’s ideas and everyone’s points across while making it fair and reasonable for everyone else.”

The culminating project for the course required students to synthesize what they learned in Pivotal Moments with their prior DeSales coursework and connect it to their own lives. Then, they identified a problem in their desired careers and proposed solutions, including a personal contribution they could make.

Matos, for instance, was a nursing major and had concerns about the toll the pandemic was taking on nurses and other health-care workers. She wrote about ways she and other young nurses could advocate for more personal protective equipment and speak up to enact other positive changes, in part via social media.

“It was very nerve-wracking knowing that I worked so hard for four years just to get all the way (to senior year), and now I’m questioning what I want to do for a career because I didn’t feel safe,” says Matos, who’s now a nurse at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Cedar Crest. “But also, I did come to understand that there’s always a possibility of not being fully prepared. I think that DeSales, and this course in general, did a really good job of allowing me to just take it in one day at a time and take the experience as a learning process into knowing that, hey, maybe things will get a little bit better. Not right now, but slowly.”

Based on the pilot course’s positive feedback, the gen-ed working group was optimistic that more can be done with Pivotal Moments, in whatever form that might take.

“I looked at this course more as a way to pilot some ideas than necessarily a prescription of how it would have to be moving forward,” Mattingly says. “It is certainly possible that this course could be offered again in a very similar form; it is also possible that it would never be offered again. But I do think the things we did were valuable and rewarding, and I can see a number of different pathways to cultivating that same kind of experience for students.”