The Value In Learning


Dr. Carlos Vargas

Dr. Carlos Vargas

It only takes one conversation with Southeast’s 18th President Dr. Carlos Vargas to understand he has an unquenchable thirst for learning. Vargas appreciates the pursuit of knowledge. In his office during our discussion, he references a book he’s read, a TED Talk and several articles. He calls on this knowledge as he explains his vision for education by repeatedly offering, “let me give you an example.”

One conversation with Vargas can convince you of just how genuine he is. His focus is on having meaningful conversations, and he admits to wanting to skip the small talk.

“You see a student on campus and ask how they are,” he explains, “and the answer comes back, fine. But if you ask something real, you get a real answer: how are your studies? What are you working on now?”

Vargas is a product of his upbringing, parents who were lifelong learners and emphasized such to their children. Living in an urban area in Mexico, he had to catch a 6 a.m. bus for school each day with an hour-long commute. It created a learner who was better at studying early rather than late. He says it wasn’t unnatural for him to wake up early to study. That’s a practice he still keeps to this day.

“If I know I have a really busy day and much to prepare for,” he says, “I’ll wake at 3, 4 a.m., and come into the office.”

Crossing campus from the Rust House (where the president lives) to Academic Hall (where he works), he’s more likely to encounter students returning from their evening rather than those getting ready for the day. As he shares his calendar for the week with me, I wonder exactly what day doesn’t constitute as being “really busy.” Every hour appears packed with meetings and events that require a University president to be present and be prepared. And most days, those events stretch into the evening. He says those early-morning “study sessions” give him quiet time to ensure he’s familiar with the day’s tasks before his staff arrives. Once they arrive, all bets are off as he explains the calendar is fluid, meaning every appointment is really only tentative because more often than not, things change, and new items pop up.

His office also represents a busy man. We sit at a conference table with stacks of materials, no doubt his prep for the meetings following mine. He admits to not often taking a lunch break unless he has a meeting, preferring instead to snack on Trader Joe’s Trek Mix as he works. Though since taking over the reins of the University in July, there’s been no shortage of meetings. A transplant from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, Vargas not only had to learn about Southeast, but he had to learn the community and all the players with whom he’d be dealing regarding all issues related to Southeast. Fortunately, Vargas is a learner. So meeting endless University, legislative and community officials along with donors, alumni and students is the part of his job he can take with ease. Getting to know people is just learning about them. That’s evident as the first of our one-hour interviews stretches beyond and well into his lunch meeting. It’s another example of a fluid schedule as Vargas is a man who wants to give his full attention to those present. He makes his apologies for having to head out to the next meeting and promises a follow-up to finish talking.

Vargas grew up in Mexico. He attended the National Autonomous University of Mexico where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in physics.

“My college only cost $8 a year, and I was still living with my parents at the time,” he says. “I’m incredibly grateful for that opportunity because if I had to work two or three jobs to make it through college the way some of our students do, I don’t know if I could have done it.”

Vargas would come to the United States to earn master’s degrees in physics and in aerospace science, as well as his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He says that school didn’t necessarily come easy for him. He was tenacious in finding out how he learned best. When difficulties arose, he would do math problem after problem to figure it out. He wants students to be driven to take responsibility for their education. He wants them to know that if they focus on school now, they will get a return on that investment later. That means, he says, the University has an obligation to be part of that education and that investment.

“We have a responsibility to help students. Not to give ‘easy A’s. But, if we accept them into this University, then we have to take responsibility to help them be successful.”

Finding that success hinges on students determining which tools and techniques are most effective for them to learn. He says the University can then help provide the right methods whether that’s learning visually, by reading, writing or listening.

“If you help the student understand that everyone is different in how they learn, you help them optimize their learning experience,” Vargas says.

For students to be successful at Southeast, he says the University needs to not only provide them with mastery in a discipline, but also the skills to be successful as they integrate into society. Inspired by the words of Fareed Zakaria in his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Vargas has found the significance in liberal arts colleges putting an emphasis on writing and communicating. Those skills, he says, are virtually a necessity to be successful, and something he worries may get lost as new technologies emerge.

As he flips through the book, explaining that learning how to learn optimally is perhaps the greatest asset college can teach a student, I notice he marks passages and takes notes in the margins of what he’s reading. He explains the importance of writing because it does make you think and it teaches you to speak. Regardless of degree, an employer would have a hard time turning away a graduate with impressive critical thinking, writing and speaking abilities.

Vargas understands that in addition to studies, college can be challenging for students. Before college, most students have such a structured life and don’t get many opportunities for decision-making. In high school, their lives are broken up hour by hour and parents often control extracurricular activities. He thinks having students understand what goes into making those decisions and having the opportunity to make mistakes is a helpful tool in learning.

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“We forget how different college is from high school because we’re here and see it every day. But when students come here, suddenly, they have to make a lot of decisions because they can decide whether they want to go to class or not. They can decide whether they’re going to study or not. They decide whether to go to this party or that party.”

Part of the solution, he feels, is creating relationships with youth in the community and improving learning skills in the lives of children before they ever get to Southeast. He intends to work with regional superintendents to get their input on ways the University can assist.

“If we can help students be successful outside of campus, they can be more prepared for life in college and more eager to continue their education.”

He’s very focused on making sure Southeast graduates are good citizens of the world, knowledgeable in their field as well as in those soft skills that translate beyond their field. He quotes yet another work he’s been reading about how society is moving from knowledge workers to relationship workers.

“Just the facts can be handled by technology,” he explains, paraphrasing Peter Drucker. “Manual workers do things right; knowledge (and these days, relationship) workers do the right things. Let me give you an example. You want your doctor to be knowledgeable about your diagnosis and your treatment, but you also want them to be able to explain it to you in a way you understand, in a comforting way. Sometimes, it’s not just all about what you know, but who you are.”

Understanding relationships are important is evident in the way he’s begun his presidency. He has started meeting with small groups of students just to hear their thoughts. He says he also likes to go to the University Center just to see what students are doing. He’s challenged the University community to remember to be student-centered.

At the end of the day, Vargas practices what he preaches. His evenings are more often than not student-centered. Social media posts show him attending Southeast volleyball and soccer matches, cheering in the stands with his wife, Pam. He’s been caught at the Rec Center in a weekly spinning class alongside students and staff. He’s taken to challenging students to weekend soccer matches. He attended the Symphony’s Gala Season Opening concert and when he couldn’t attend opening night of the Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of The Addams Family, he reached out to see if he and Pam could attend the final dress rehearsal. Of course, the answer was yes, and of course they went. He praises the performances, the sets and the costumes. He is genuinely excited and proud of the students learning here.

I wonder when he sleeps and start to fear a president suffering from exhaustion. He laughs. He tells me he makes it a practice to not know how long he sleeps. He never looks at the clock before bed because he feels knowing he isn’t going to get a lot of sleep predetermines the day he’ll have. He also reminds me he could go home on those free nights.

“But to do what? Watch TV? It seems like I could be doing something rather than just passively taking something in,” he says, noting he and Pam much prefer cheering on the students and assuring me they find down time to enjoy their patio. “But we rarely talk about work. We both leave that at the office.”

And, before I can believe it, another hour is up. He asks if I need another slot in his packed schedule. I want it, just to hear more of his thoughts on learning and education, to see his excitement as he talks about students. But remembering the Tetris-blocked schedule already on the books for the week and how much of his time he’s already generously offered, I decline. And, then, the answer seems simple. Students will readily adopt his insatiable intensity for learning if each student could just spend an hour talking with Dr. Vargas.

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