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Constance Alexander: Murray State University’s CHA offers an uncommon wealth of millennial talent

For the past three years, I’ve been honored to be a faculty member of Murray State University’s Commonwealth Honors Academy (CHA), which was launched in 2001. Every year as I’ve watched teens arrive on campus, I have been struck by the differences between the Baby Boomers of my youth and Gen Z post-Millennials. While we frittered our summers away when we were that age, these kids are aware of the world and raring to do something. They get involved and dare to be different.

The 3 weeks of CHA differ from the traditional high school approach, with the creation of a living-learning community where kids get to know peers from all regions of Kentucky. This year’s CHA scholars also include participants from Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Alabama.

They live in a dorm, earn 6 credits by successfully completing two college-level classes, and benefit from making friends and working with other enthusiastic students of high intellectual capacity. Interaction with faculty is on a first-name basis, and the adults are not only involved in teaching but also in extra-curricular activities. The days are long — starting at 8 a.m. and stretching to at least 9:30 most nights — but the environment is so stimulating, it is tough to slow down after the kids are back in the dorm.

Outstanding college men and women serve on-site as residential counselors, providing leadership, friendship, and encouragement to the rising high school seniors. A variety of speakers, performers, films, special events and recreational experiences offer everyone an array of stimulating activities.

There is a day of enrichment where students dig deep into the subject matter and skills in their chosen elective area. Another day of enrichment comes with a trip to St. Louis with Interdisciplinary Humanities and Fine Arts (IDHFA)faculty. This all-day extravaganza includes activities at SLAM, the St. Louis Art Museum, as well as a Shakespeare in the Park production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

Teaching Interdisciplinary Humanities and Fine Arts at CHA is an instructional wonderland. The students are motivated, and the challenge of accomplishing 3 credits of intense work in three weeks is an intellectual and organizational challenge.

Surrounded by a frazzle of paper and books as I write this, I am in the midst of planning for my IDHFA course. It is like being one of Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters, determined to jam her fat foot into a tiny glass slipper. At this point I am realizing, for the third year in a row, something has to be cut out to make it fit.

With this year’s CHA theme, Leave Great Footprints, my IDHFA class will start out by reading “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a New York Times Book Review Top Ten Choice, National Book Award finalist, and more than two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller, the novel tells a riveting story of occupied France during World War II.

One of the two main characters is a young French girl who, despite her blindness, becomes part of the Resistance. The other, also a teenager, is German. He has been unwillingly drawn into the military because of his genius in electronics and radio transmission. His skills will keep him alive…at least for a while.

Despite so many obstacles, both characters manage to leave great footprints that intersect, however briefly.

The setting of the book is St. Malo, France, on the Breton Coast. The medieval walled city was almost totally destroyed by Allied bombers and bombardment because of the mistaken belief that thousands of German soldiers were entrenched there, determined to resist invasion at all costs. After D-Day, as the Allies sought to liberate all of France and end the war in Europe, St. Malo was almost totally destroyed. Of the 865 buildings within its walls, only 182 were left standing after the siege.

We won’t spend all our time with the novel, as there are many other avenues of learning to explore. Guest speakers will talk about how people overcome and accommodate their own disabilities to leave great footprints. Research projects will uncover the identities of those who left great footprints but whose achievements are forgotten. Through the lens of visual art, poetry, architecture, and storytelling, the students will have ample opportunities to demonstrate their insights, and to share their aspirations regarding the footprints they hope to leave. I only hope I can keep up with them.

For more information about Commonwealth Honors Academy, visit www.murraystate.edu. All the Light We Cannot See is available on Amazon.com and Barnes Noble websites.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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