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What exactly does a liberal arts education provide?

Fifty-three-year-old University of Wisconsin Oshkosh student Cheryl Davis would answer, “A world of opportunity.”

Davis answered this question and more in her University of Wisconsin System Liberal Arts Scholarship-winning essay, “The Choices of Success.”

For her essay, which was characterized by the judges as “delightful and refreshing, clearly demonstrating that she understands the value of a liberal education,” Davis will receive a $2,000 scholarship from the UW System Foundation to be used for UW Oshkosh educational expenses during the 2008-09 academic year.

Other winners include Katie Jo Pockat of UW Marinette for “To My Dear Little Brother: Everything You Must Know about Your Liberal Education” and Vidhya Raju of UW Madison for “An Engineer’s Advice: a Discussion about College and the Value of a Liberal Arts Education.”

In addition to the three scholarship recipients, three essay writers earned honorable mentions: Madeleine Dungy, UW Madison; Maria Lind, UW Eau Claire; and Rose Steiner, UW Washington County.

Sponsored by the UW System Advisory Group on the Liberal Arts, the third-annual Liberal Arts Scholarship Competition was funded by private funds. The competition is one of many activities from the UW System’s Currency of the Liberal Arts and Sciences Initiative, which seeks to make the goals and outcomes of liberal arts education accessible and valuable to all UW students, regardless of major or degree program.

Through a partnership with the Association of American Colleges & Universities and its national campaign, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), the initiative further seeks to spark public debate about the kinds of knowledge, skills, habits of mind, and values needed to prepare today’s students for their future roles as citizens. To read more about the initiative, click here.

To be eligible to enter the competition, students were required to have a current grade-point average of at least 3.4, completed at least 60 credit hours by the end of the fall 2007 semester and have at least one semester remaining as a full-time student. Applicants were then asked to respond to the following prompt:

  • Imagine yourself as a graduating senior with a younger sibling who will be starting college next year. What advice would you offer to this brother or sister who is setting off on the path of a liberal education? What experiences should your sibling anticipate — or seek out — that might afford a richer comprehension of liberal education’s ideals?

Taking a creative spin, Davis’ essay provides advice to a young piano student named Katie, who is struggling with her decision to attend college.

For inspiration, Davis reflected on her experience as a nontraditional student and the unique path that led to her liberal arts education.

Davis’s story

After teaching piano lessons in the Fox Valley for more than two decades to support her three children, Davis felt as though her intellectual ability never was fully tapped.

“I got to be nearly 50-years-old, and felt I didn’t have any dreams left,” Davis said. “To not have dreams is a very sad place.”

That’s when Davis decided to enroll as an undergraduate at UW Oshkosh — she was 47-years-old.

Four years later, Davis is still teaching piano lessons 30 to 40 hours per week, but her dreams have been reignited by her liberal arts experience.

“School has reopened my dreams,” Davis said. “My goal now is to become a writer.”

Described by her professors as “an intelligent, curious and perceptive student who is driven by intellectual curiosity,” Davis hopes to combine her majors — history and psychology — to conduct research and write about indoctrination in totalitarian societies and its effects on children.

“I didn’t have to go to school,” Davis said. “I was living a comfortable life, my kids had already graduated from college and the thought of going to school was intimidating. The most important thing I’ve learned, however, is that education is not something you have to do; it’s something you get to do, and I feel like I could not not be in school.”

Davis addressed issues like this and more in her essay as she encouraged Katie about her decision to attend college.

The following is an excerpt from Davis’ essay:

  • Make a special effort to befriend international students; they have much to teach you about the rest of the world. In one of my classes, a Haitian student changed the direction of a negative discussion about the United States. In his wonderful French accent he said, “I think you are all too hard on your country. I have lived here three years and have not heard a gunshot or seen anyone murdered. In Haiti, I heard gunshots all the time and would see dead bodies along the road on my way to school each day.” We were silent. We had not realized how much we had to learn.

To read Davis’ entire essay, click here.