What Makes Teaching at Creighton Special?

Eileen Wirth, Ph.D., who will retire at the end of this academic year, reflects on what teaching at Creighton has meant to her. Read here

Creighton alumni share memories of their ties with faculty members. Read here

Alumni recall stories of the late Rev. John P. Schlegel, S.J., Creighton’s 23rd president and former faculty member. Read here

What Makes Teaching
at Creighton Special?

By Eileen Wirth, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair – Journalism, Media & Computing

After years of teaching at Creighton, Tim Dickel, Ed.D., a professor of education, can sense when one of his students has a problem. He notices small changes in the ways students act and how they respond in class. Often, he makes it a point to walk out of class with the student he’s concerned about just to check out what’s happening.

And Dickel sensed that something was very wrong with one of his students. On the way out of class, the student broke into tears and said he had become homeless. Dickel walked him over to the Creighton Counseling Center and told the scheduler that the student needed immediate assistance — no waiting for a standard appointment. Taken aback, the scheduler asked if the student could wait 20 minutes. Dickel said this would be fine; the student got the help he needed.

About 10 years later, Dickel encountered this same student in the Skutt Student Center and received a warm greeting. “I just wanted you to know that I’m in medical school,” he said. Today, said Dickel, this formerly homeless student is the medical director for a substance abuse clinic.

This is one of many examples of the way that the caring interaction between Creighton faculty and their students, based on Creighton’s Jesuit mission and values such as living as women and men for others, changes lives. At its best, the chemistry between professors and their students creates a sort of magic for both.

“Teaching at Creighton is not just about conveying facts,” said Robert Dornsife, Ph.D., an associate professor of English who has received the University’s top teaching award. “It’s about allowing our students to become who they want to be. At Creighton, there’s a moral and social and personal element to what we do together. It’s easy enough to see a university as a repository of facts, but Creighton is so much more than that.”

Dornsife said he never stops thinking about his students and tries to be open to their needs. “I’m in contact with students and alumni all day every day.

“You have to be vulnerable, to be willing to take the risks of reaching students meaningfully,” he said. For example, if Dornsife sees that a student is underperforming or is distracted or overwhelmed, after class he might ask the student how things are going — just reaching out.

The close connections between faculty and students start by professors “becoming aware of who students are and where they are,” he said.

And students respond to such caring.

One alumnus even asked Dornsife to officiate at his wedding in Denver. This required obtaining an online ordination certificate, which turned out to be a five-minute process. The alumnus flew Dornsife to Denver for the ceremony.

“Our students see faculty not just in a professional capacity but in a personal, collaborative, helpful capacity,” he said.

Charles Austerberry, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology and director of pre-health advising through the Creighton EDGE, said he thinks that “part of the magic at Creighton is in the synergy between teaching and advising.

“We’re here to serve the students. We’re here primarily because we want students to be a success,” he said. This caring approach to teaching, advising and research models a life of service to others that many students adopt.

“We’ve had students who choose to practice medicine with the economically disadvantaged, both urban and rural,” he said, noting that medical students who mentor pre-med students pass on the culture of service.

“The Magis Clinic at the Siena-Francis House homeless shelter was started and continues to be run by medical students, and they reach out to pre-meds,” he said. Dental students do the same for pre-dental students at the Creighton Dental Clinic. “The dental school wants students who want to serve the underserved.”

The Rev. Richard Hauser, S.J., assistant to the president for mission and professor emeritus of theology, said Creighton’s embrace of its Ignatian identity lies at the heart of such faculty-student relationships. The University’s mission statement says that Creighton exists for students and learning, and professors take this seriously.

“We see our students as gifts given to Creighton, and we have the responsibility of developing their gifts of body, intellect and spirit,” he said. “A difference between Creighton and a lot of other universities is that students are not interruptions in faculty lives. They are the reason Creighton exists.”

Fr. Hauser noted that the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Nursing, the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, the School of Dentistry and the Graduate School have adopted Jesuit charisms — such as cura personalis (care of the individual), finding God in all things, magis (doing more for God’s glory and the betterment of humanity), and men and women for and with others — as part of their mission statements.

In the College of Arts and Sciences, each department has a “mission catalyst” who works to promote the mission in all aspects of department life, including the curriculum. Candidates for faculty positions are required to explain how they would promote the Creighton mission and new faculty member orientation includes discussion of how faculty members integrate it into their work.

Dornsife said it is important that the “Ignatian tradition withstands fleeting fads and changes. Ignatian tradition asks our students to find their passions and pursue them, and that is why we are here.”