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HER take on lifelong learning: A conversation with Coe’s Gina Hausknecht

As students head back to school, it's a great time to think about how we all learn throughout our lives. This month, we talked to Gina Hausknecht, professor of English and associate dean of student academics at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.

She admits that she pushes students to learn things that are outside their comfort zones.

'If I ask you to do something that feels scary, that's the whole point,” she tells her classes.

Although she has spent 30 years giving this lesson to college students, she said it's equally important for people of all ages, including those who are well-established in their careers, to challenge themselves to continue learning.

'As much as we want to do the things we know how to do well and knock it out of the park every time, we also have to open ourselves up to things we don't know how to do yet.”

In 2015, Hausknecht did just that by accepting a new role at Coe that was challenging and unfamiliar. She was tasked with creating and leading the Learning Commons, a brand-new department which combined three previously separate departments - Career Services, Academic Achievement and Community Engagement. Hausknecht said the goal of the Learning Commons is to help every student make the most of their time at Coe.

'We see students who are struggling, but we also see students who may be doing fine, but not maximizing their potential,” she said.

Hausknecht recognized she wouldn't be stretching her own abilities if she didn't accept the job.

'I could have stayed where I was and essentially had the same job for my entire career, or I could jump into this new thing I didn't know much about,” she said. After feeling comfortable as an expert on writing and literature, including Renaissance British literature, she suddenly found herself doing something new.

'I had to conceptualize myself in a way that had nothing to do with my academic training and learn to be comfortable with what I don't know,” she said.

The new role gave Hausknecht the opportunity to learn how to supervise staff for the first time. Making it a bit more challenging was the fact that she had never had a boss, at least in the traditional sense.

'I had purposely gone into a career that is pretty autonomous and flat, and it was uncomfortable to be referred to as a boss.”

Hausknecht learned management tips from friends and colleagues, along with a healthy amount of learning on the fly. Now, she focuses on the strengths of the people who report to her to help them grow.

'The people I'm inspired by are the people who think their role as a supervisor is to help everyone improve,” she said.

Through her new role, Hausknecht also developed better public speaking skills - something she didn't consider herself to be skilled at, even as a professor.

'In the classroom, I can close the door and it's just my stuff. With the Learning Commons, I had to sell this thing that didn't really exist yet.”

Today, the Learning Commons is an established resource for improving retention rates and helping Coe students graduate in four years, work that Hausknecht finds rewarding.

Her five-year term leading the Learning Commons will be coming to a close in 2020, and Hausknecht is already thinking about what she'll do next to keep learning new things.

'For me, the question of lifelong learning has to do with purpose. How do I live a purposeful life? How do I allow my sense of purpose to grow and change?” She plans to explore teaching in local prisons - something she's been interested in for some time. She also hopes to explore other opportunities to get out in the community and teach, even if she's not entirely sure how she'll do it yet.

For Hausknecht, that's part of the point of trying.

'There's a world of difference between saying you're bad at something and saying you don't know how to do something, yet. The power of ‘not yet' is tremendous.”

Quotes on lifelong learning

'Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.” - Anthony J. D'Angelo

'Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” - Henry Ford

'Neither comprehension nor learning can take place in an atmosphere of anxiety.” - Rose Kennedy

Books about lifelong learning

The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel

Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens by Barbara Oakley, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Alistair McConville