September 27, 2023

On May 13, 2023, the first class of Hampden-Sydney students who enrolled as freshmen with Compass as a graduation requirement turned their tassels.

Compass Points Students in the Right Direction

From the Record, Summer 2023
By Alexandra Evans

a collection of four photos of students doing hands-on work, incuding art, archaeology, and study abroad“This year’s graduates really are pioneers,” says Elliott Professor of English Sarah Hardy, who has captained the Compass program since its inception. “They taught us about experiential learning as much as they learned from us and had to overcome a lot of adversity in the midst of COVID.”

The program got a stellar endorsement from renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in his 2023 Hampden- Sydney commencement speech. Dr. Tyson said, “Reviewing your curriculum, I noticed you have this Compass program. I love it. I wish we had that when I was in college because it recognizes that not all knowledge is coming from a book.”

Compass takes the traditional model of teacher-centered learning—where an instructor deposits information into the mind of a passive learner—and flips it on its head. By positioning the student as both teacher and learner and the instructor as an active facilitator, Compass creates a cyclical dynamic of experience, observation, reflection, and experimentation that deepens and refines the student’s understanding of a topic and its place in broader conversations.

Launched in 2019, the program requires that students complete at least three Compass courses, with at least one course having a significant off-campus component such as an internship, study abroad program, or service in the community. Compass has been integrated into the fabric of the College with support from offices like the Ferguson Career Center, the Office of Global Education, and the Flemming Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

“Over the past four years, we have seen how this teaching philosophy of active learning combined with intentional reflection has impacted courses across the whole curriculum,” says Professor of Psychology Jenn Vitale, who will assume direction of the program in the fall semester. “These ideas and techniques encourage students to make connections across disciplines and draw links between what they are doing in class and their lives outside of the classroom, expanding and influencing their H-SC experience. In many colleges and universities, the academic and co-curricular components might be kept separate or as part of a program that only some students participate in. At Hampden- Sydney, all of our students are exposed to this approach, and there is a framework for the curricular and co-curricular to be brought together in a really meaningful way.”

The Compass approach encourages students to make connections across disciplines and draw links between what they are doing in class and their lives outside of the classroom, expanding and influencing their H-SC experience.

Jenn Vitale, Professor of Psychology and Assistant Dean of the Faculty


Faculty-taught Compass course offerings are varied and fascinatingly innovative. With more than 75 Compass-approved classes, students have myriad ways to explore their interests or develop new ones. Elliott Professor of Physics and Astronomy Stan Cheyne has been teaching Physics of Sound (PHYS 135) for more than 30 years. Students in the fall 2022 class were the first to experience it as a Compass course, which Cheyne says “enhanced their understanding of the subject matter but also fostered a level of independence and problem-solving that the traditional model doesn’t always cultivate.” Compass invested $50,000 for student travel, supplies, and faculty stipends to support experiential learning coursework this academic year.


H-SC’s Department of Undergraduate Research has been empowering students to get hands on in their learning for years. The incorporation of Compass has served to deepen their experiences and help student researchers make important connections between their research topics and the rest of their lives. “With Compass, there is more active consideration of how the work they’re doing could contribute to a passion or a vocation after they leave here,” says Director of Undergraduate Research Mike Wolyniak. “It gets students thinking: ‘What is the point of it all?’ It isn’t enough to do the work; students need to be thinking about the work’s impact on them.” Just this summer, Compass distributed $30,000 in aid to undergraduate researchers enrolled in a Research Methods Compass course.


Hampden-Sydney layers in the Compass magic with global education by having students participate in pre-departure, incountry, and post-country discussions about their experiences. “It’s easy to gravitate towards familiar things even when out of your comfort zone in a new country, but incorporating reflection and introducing conversations about how study abroad experience fits into a larger conversation is really impactful for students,” says Associate Professor of Modern Languages Julia Palmer. Compass awarded nearly $74,000 in funding to students studying abroad or away in the 2022-23 academic year.


“Compass gets students thinking more critically about their internships—what they learned, what they contributed, and what about their experience they’d like to explore more,” says Assistant Director of Career Education Patrick Jourdain ’88. “Because Compass funding has increased access to opportunities and logistics like housing, we have also seen an increase in students seeking internship opportunities.” The Ferguson Career Center distributed $75,000 in aid to students participating in the internship Compass course this past year.

Compass Website

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Support Compass

Faculty and staff aren’t the only community members investing in Compass. Thanks to the generosity of supporters like Rob ’87 and Cindy Citrone, who committed $6 million in 2019 for the Compass program, more students than ever have access to funding that allows them to have life-changing experiences. If you are interested in supporting Compass, please contact Jennie Porter at (434) 223-6138.

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