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5 Questions With DU’s 4D Experience Experts

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Emma Atkinson

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Erin Willer, Laura Perille and Kateri McRae share their thoughts on all things 4D ahead of 2024 Symposium.

Erin Willer, Laura Perille and Kateri McRae.

Since the University of Denver’s 4D Experience was introduced, a dedicated group of faculty and staff have been working tirelessly to tailor the program to the needs of the DU community.

Why do these University employees choose to live and breathe 4D? Let’s find out.

Ahead of the 2024 4D Symposium on May 9 and 10, the DU Newsroom talked to the 4D leadership team about what makes the 4D Experience so special. All three will be presenting at the Symposium about 4D-related topics.

Here’s what Erin Willer, professor of communication and director of 4D faculty innovation; Laura Perille, executive director of the 4D Experience; and Kateri McRae, professor of psychology and 4D faculty fellow, had to say.

Describe your role as it relates to 4D.

McRae: My goal is to help faculty see that part of their role is to be aware of student well-being, and while they're not solely responsible for it, that doing their job well as an advisor, teacher, mentor and scholar is contributing to student well-being—and that they're likely already doing it. It’s also to remind faculty that it's hard to contribute to student well-being if they're always putting their own well-being on the back burner.

Perille: I focus on developing strategic vision, priorities, frameworks and partnerships. 

My work is multi-faceted. On any one day, I might be focused on lifting 4D through technology. On another I’m considering how to assess student growth across the four dimensions longitudinally. On yet another I’m collaborating to build out a meaningful second-year student experience that mitigates the “sophomore slump.” And on another I’m developing strategies for faculty and staff engagement that help them design for purpose and well-being in their work with students. 

Willer: I have the great joy of supporting faculty in engaging the four dimensions in their research, teaching and service, as well as in their own personal and professional lives. Essentially this means that I get to think strategically and creatively about how we can provide opportunities for faculty and students to thrive at DU and beyond. Some of the work I do includes leading the 4D Faculty Research Fellows and the 4D Infusion Grant cohort. I also am a part of developing and facilitating our 4D Design Series workshops, which includes providing faculty with opportunities to design for greater belonging, purpose and well-being in their classrooms and personal and professional lives. I also am also currently working on an online 4D resource library that will provide assignments and activities in line with the four dimensions.

A young woman sits on a yoga mat outdoors with her eyes closed and legs crossed.
One of the four dimensions is promoting well-being.

Describe one thing about 4D that you find particularly interesting.

McRae: I think the idea of 4D is so interesting. I think college and school should be a special place where people can bring all aspects of themselves and be treated as a whole person. Education should be broadening, including on a personal level.

Perille: What excites me about 4D is that it represents the opportunity to design a holistic education that embeds elements that studies have repeatedly shown are correlated with post-graduate thriving. We know that experiential learning fosters curiosity and engagement, that mentorship is absolutely critical, that regular opportunities to make sense of—and connect the dots across—one's learning support meaning-making and clarity. Combined, these elements  support not only intellectual growth but also well-being, purpose and understanding of self in relation to the world (character). So 4D enriches students’ educational journeys while also preparing them for lifelong learning, engagement and thriving. 

Willer: One of the many things I find interesting about 4D is that it asks us to question who we are—collectively and individually—in the name of providing a space for learning and working that matters. When we have the opportunity to reflect on this question iteratively, to tie our work to its answer, to scratch it out and start anew, we ignite possibilities and make space for navigating the complex challenges of the world.

Which spot on campus feels the most 4D to you?

McRae: Probably the Community Commons, since I go there for 4D events and meetings. The large event space on the first floor makes me think of community, belonging and the great people I've met at various events held there. The fourth floor space often induces the emotion of awe for me—I mean, sunsets up there?!—and I am often reminded of how special it is to go to work on a beautiful campus in a beautiful part of the world!

Perille: The Community Commons immediately comes to mind. It’s a space for belonging and connection, where students can socialize and gather with student clubs and organizations. It’s a space for learning, whether through conferences or workshops. It’s a space to engage with mentors and advisors. It’s a space for play and artistic expression. It’s a space to explore pathways of interest, whether that be experiential learning opportunities like community-engaged learning, fellowships or study abroad. And it’s a space for all—students, staff and faculty. In those ways, I think Community Commons embodies the four dimensions while also representing the individual and communal aspects of 4D. 

Willer: My favorite spot on campus is on the west side of Mary Reed. When I came to DU 15 years ago, I remember stopping there and taking in the awe of the architecture old and new, the stunning landscaping and the beautiful mountain views. I couldn’t believe that I was selected to call such a beautiful campus home and to do work in the world that really matters. This moment captures the hope and possibility that the 4D Experience offers not only me (even all these years later) but also my DU colleagues and our students.    

A young woman in a library peers through a shelf of books.
The 4D Experience promotes intellectual growth.

If you could advance your own intellectual growth by taking a class from another faculty member at DU, what would it be and why?

McRae: I've never heard of a communications class that doesn't sound fascinating. But this year, given my news feed, I think I'd love a class in American politics or even a law class to help me understand the Supreme Court rulings!

Perille: I don’t know if I could choose! I’m so inspired by the faculty on the 4D team—Erin, Kateri and Cris Tietsort—and have seen them enough in action to know that it would be an absolute treat to take a course with any one of them. Also, a student recently shared with me that she is taking a course with Professor Kate Willink that focuses on how memories and imaginations give rise to the stories that we tell. I immediately wished that I could sign up! 

Willer: I would take a class with Dr. Deb Ortega, professor in the Graduate School of Social Work and director of the DU Latino Center for Community Engagement and Scholarship. Deb served as an outside chair on several communication studies graduate student dissertations over the years. Beyond this service role, however, I always deeply admired the way she mentored our Latinx students with brilliance, sincerity, clarity, warmth and humor. Whenever I would hear the students talk about Deb with such admiration, I couldn’t help but wish I could be her student and mentee too.

What’s the biggest misconception about the 4D Experience?

McRae: That it is "owned" or controlled by one person or group on campus. Its goal is to be woven into everything, so it can be hard to pin down!

Perille: One of the biggest misconceptions about 4D is that it is “owned” by the 4D Experience team. Rather, the 4D Experience is shared and shaped by all, and that is what makes it so powerful. Each unit, area and department on campus has the opportunity to elevate and make visible how they currently support engagement with the four dimensions while also imagining how to further advance these efforts in their particular contexts in ways that are authentic to them. 

Willer: One of the biggest misconceptions about the 4D Experience is that it is simply fancy packaging for what faculty and staff have been doing for a long time at the University. Though our teaching, research and programming have long focused on engaging a holistic approach that centers intellectual growth, purpose, character and well-being, we haven’t always had the structural support in place to connect the dots across offices, schools, colleges and departments.

The 4D Symposium

The 2024 4D Symposium on May 9-10 will bring together the University community to learn more about the holistic learning experience that is 4D at DU. Attendees will learn about how the Four Dimensions—advancing intellectual growth, exploring character, promoting well-being and pursuing careers and lives of purpose—is helping students thrive during and after their time in Denver.

Visit the 4D Symposium website to register for the event and learn more about sessions and featured speakers.

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