Webster defines “transform” as to change in composition, appearance, character or condition. Frequently I have used the term transformative to describe the educational experience of our students at Davis & Elkins College. I stand firmly behind this description as apt, and yet recognize this is a sweeping statement. Recently, I experienced the most practical and tangible illustration of this truth I have witnessed in my years as the leader of this institution.

During our recent 11-stop “D&E Journey Tour” to celebrate mini-commencements for our graduates, I not only handed each deserving graduate a diploma, but I also handed them a hand-written letter. The letter was composed four years ago by the graduate and was written to himself or herself, specifically their future self.

Each year during orientation for our new students, I give them their first homework assignment. During their initial days on campus, their assignment is to compose a letter that honestly expresses their emotions and feelings as they begin their collegiate journey. They are asked to pour out their hopes and dreams for their years at college and for their lives. This snapshot in time, written at a pivotal moment in their young lives, serves as a baseline to measure the change that begins with their arrival at D&E. Those letters are sealed and the student’s name written on the front of the envelope. They remain sealed and secure in the President’s Office for the duration of their college career.

Commencement is the culmination of a student’s course of study and campus experience. Many students enter college as adolescents, perhaps insecure and searching for their vocation. Their time on campus is filled with exploration of new ideas, challenge to old assumptions, establishment of deep and formative relationships, and maturation. For those fortunate enough to attend, college is a unique time on life’s journey when they concentrate all their attention and energy on learning, preparation and growth. Before it seems possible that four years have passed, that time concludes in a milestone moment called graduation.

As mentioned earlier, along with the diploma I handed our graduates their letter. Often, they only remember writing it when I remind them of the assignment, though a few have surprised me as they asked before graduation if they would be getting them back. Regardless, I tell our graduates that within that letter are the hopes and dreams of a freshman, and I am confident that those desires are fulfilled as represented by the diploma and the holistic experience it entails. I am not able to watch our graduates read their letters; however, I imagine a smile, a feeling of satisfaction, and gratitude that accompanies those long-ago-written words. Their hard work, dedication and perseverance has moved them from where they were to where they are, and their future is bright.

From the day of the writing of their letter to the day when our graduate reads their words, something special and unique occurs. The word for that process is transformation. Davis & Elkins College provides a transformative educational experience, and I have the proof.