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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2001, Vol. 28 No. 2

A "Perfect Standard?" Exploring Perceptions of Student Life and Culture at Wheaton College

Kevin D. Cumings, Jennifer Grant Haworth, and Keith O’Neill

Relationships among college students develop from shared experiences, mutual interests, and a common environment. As college students seek to establish their independence, make new friends, and master complicated new surroundings, they are drawn together and create a new social cohesiveness.1 The bonds that are formed develop into common understandings and working agreements as to what constitutes proper and reasonable behavior for students.2 Among other understandings, college students develop shared perspectives on the relative importance of academic performance, extracurricular activities, social life and work.3

This relational web of peer interactions and shared perspectives contributes to the formation of student culture. Broadly stated, student culture can be understood as the values, beliefs, attitudes, rituals, and activities that shape how students interact with and make meaning of their collegiate world. It exerts a powerful force on many aspects of college life, including what a student learns, because it influences the kinds of people with whom a student spends time and the values and attitudes to which the student is exposed.4 An institution’s student culture shapes students’ perceptions and behaviors in multiple respects, influencing their patterns of eating, sleeping, studying, and socializing; contributing to their tacit understandings about what activities on campus are status-enhancing or status-degrading; and informing them of the norms that determine acceptable behavior in and out of the classroom.5 In brief, student culture becomes an all important measuring stick by which students evaluate what is useful or important in their collegiate environment.

While a variety of factors help to shape student culture in college and university environments, institutional factors are among the most influential. The distinctiveness of an institution’s mission can dictate or influence the type of student who will enroll at that institution. The more distinctive the institutional ethos, the more likely that constraints on student culture will be felt. Institutions with distinctive missions frequently attract more homogenous student populations which, in turn, mediate the types of student perspectives represented.

Interestingly, although several studies of student culture exist in the literature,6 only limited attention has been given to understanding the shape and contours of student life and culture at Evangelical Christian colleges.7 This study represents one attempt to fill that void by describing various lived realities that animate the student culture at an academically elite, Evangelical Christian liberal arts institution: Wheaton College.

Why study Wheaton? As an Evangelical Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton is among one of several distinctive, special mission institutions in the U.S. higher education system. These institutions are most clearly identified by their membership in the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities, an association created for the promotion and support of Christian higher education that currently includes ninety-one U.S. colleges and universities. Whereas there is great diversity among Evangelical Christian liberal arts schools, all share a unique mission among institutions of higher education — the integration of Christian faith with all aspects of life and learning as expressed through a liberal arts education.8 Additionally, all emphasize in varying degrees core Evangelical Christian religious convictions, such as a personalized commitment and response to the gospel message of Jesus Christ as well as a view of the Bible as the divinely inspired, infallible, authoritative guide for faith and practice.9

Through this exploratory study, we attempt to illustrate how two intertwined features of one Evangelical Christian college’s mission – Wheaton’s Evangelical Christian religious heritage and its reputation for academic excellence — inform the distinctiveness of its student culture and students’ responses to it. More specifically, we identify and describe the assumptions, values, norms, and behaviors that inform and animate Wheaton’s student culture, a highly-selective, residential liberal arts institution of approximately 2,250 traditionally-aged undergraduate students in Wheaton, Illinois.

[Fall 2001 Issue Contents]