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Wendt Character Initiative Celebrates 20 Years of Character Education

By Stacey Ortman

DUBUQUE, Iowa - When Jack Lindsay (C'16) first toured the University of Dubuque, he read a name in a newsletter that intrigued him: Wendt Character Scholars. He had been involved with community service projects in high school and wanted to continue giving back in college. Wendt Character Scholars, part of the Wendt Character Initiative, seemed like the perfect opportunity.

A Wendt Character Scholar from 2014 to 2016, Lindsay said the topics discussed and the people helped impact him each and every day.

"I often wear my scholar shirt 'fearless integrity' as this was my favorite topic we discussed. As an airline pilot at Delta Air Lines, I believe leadership with integrity and giving back to others are two of the most important things I do on a daily basis. Leadership isn't something you learn overnight and I feel like being a Wendt Character Scholar helped me build on my foundation of leading with integrity and giving back to others. Many of our speakers at Wendt have had or have extremely successful careers, not just good jobs but positions where they can give back, and these were my role models. I try to self-reflect on these experiences and lead by example each and every day," Lindsay said.

The Wendt Character Initiative is celebrating its 20th anniversary this academic year. In April 2004, Richard and Nancy Wendt endowed a large fund to establish the Lester G. and Michael Lester Wendt Character Initiative. Named in honor of Richard's late father, Lester, and Richard and Nancy's late son, Michael, the initiative sought to create a campus-wide culture of character focused on the values of truthfulness, fairness, honesty, and the Golden Rule.

Lindsay is a proud alumnus of the Wendt Character Initiative - joining an exceptional group of over 500 Wendt Character Scholars alumni and current students.

"Twenty years?! Wow. What an amazing program that continues to have such an amazing impact on so many peoples' lives. For those current scholars and those who would like to be in the Wendt Character Scholar program, enjoy your time and reflect on each and every moment. We all move on after college and these 'building blocks' you develop throughout your life will build a foundation that can never be broken down. Become a leader and then give back; helping others will always be extremely gratifying," Lindsay said.

The Wendt Character Initiative promotes a campus culture of excellent moral character and purposeful lives through programs and resources centered in UD's Mission designed to impact the lives of students, faculty, and staff. Two of the initiative's flagship programs are Wendt Character Scholars, which is a community of students selected as character leaders for the year-long co-curricular program where character-based topics are discussed, relevant issues are reflected upon, and excellent character is practiced on campus and in the community through service, and the Michael Lester Wendt Character Lecture, which brings in guest speakers each fall and spring to speak about integrity, justice, compassion, and other topics of character.

"It's so gratifying to know that we are doing work that endures, which shapes our communities and our world for the better," said Annalee Ward, PhD, who has been director of the initiative for 12 years.

Other programs and resources include faculty support, a library collection, an online periodical journal titled Character and ... that gives UD and the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary faculty an opportunity to read, discuss, and write on the intersection of character and contemporary issues, and a podcast named Character Explorations that includes journal author interviews.

"I love putting diverse faculty together in a room and working with them from the conception of an idea to their execution of it in a published essay in our journal. Then I get to interview them for the podcasts and am reminded how gifted they are. And I love when we first started tracking stats on who reads and downloads the journals - discovering that people from over 150 countries have found us and are using our work. It's exciting to know it's benefiting others," Ward said.

Woven throughout the programs and resources is one the initiative's most important aspects - shaping character for lives of purpose.

"Character is critical to a well-rounded education; it's critical to preparing engaged citizens; it's critical to helping us all think and live as better human beings. Central to our work is the fact that we are rooted in the University of Dubuque's Mission and Christian identity. This identity provides a pathway to direct toward goodness, toward justice, toward compassion. So, starting there enables us to cast a vision of hope and possibility," Ward said.

Another important piece is Wendt Character Scholars who, as Ward said, "lead by example as they complete community service, emerge as campus leaders, and continue to receive deliberate, focused character education classes."

In the past five years, Wendt Character Scholars have provided over 10,000 hours of community service at local hospitals and other organizations including the American Red Cross, Dubuque Regional Humane Society, Dubuque Rescue Mission, and Presentation Lantern Center.

"I love chatting with scholars one-on-one and getting to know them better, laughing - sometimes crying - with them, hearing their amazing stories of how they are putting what they are learning and what they believe to work. I also get to watch them grow and mature into caring and thoughtful people," Ward said.

Makenzie Knapp, a senior biology major from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, is in her third year as a Wendt Character Scholar. One of the things that inspired her to become a scholar was her faith.

"I grew up in the Christian religion and wanted to have it as a part of my life when coming to college. Being in Wendt has allowed me to meet people who want to do the same, as well as explore how we can be better character leaders in faith," Knapp said.

Her experience as a Wendt Character Scholar has already impacted her life.

"I know that when I leave Wendt, I will carry on a life of service to my community by continuing to volunteer and teach others about all I've learned from my experiences in Wendt," Knapp said.

To help guide Wendt Character Scholars throughout the academic year, five faculty members serve as mentors with each leading a group of 10 scholars. There have been 37 different mentors over the past 20 years. Daniel Fleming, MA, MDiv, assistant professor of computer studies, is a current mentor.

"I wanted to contribute to the Mission of the University of Dubuque outside of my department. I also love being able to teach students more than my department-specific skills, but to be whole persons who are pursuing character. I think that a good character will be more beneficial to our students than any amount of technical knowledge," Fleming said.

As he works to engage his mentees to try and build their view of a virtuous life, there are, he said, times when he feels he has taken more than he could ever provide his scholars.

"They have given me the joy of watching them grow and change. They have also challenged my thinking about character as they explore and wrestle with their own experiences and lives. One of the highlights is the sheer diversity of our groups which has opened my eyes to the breadth of experience and ways of being that I could not imagine on my own," Fleming said.

The Wendt Character Initiative will be celebrating its anniversary throughout the year with a variety of events including 20 Years of Wendt Character Scholars Celebration Breakfast during Homecoming. The program will include guest speaker Paula Carlson, a former director of the Wendt Character Initiative. Please click here to RSVP for the breakfast, which will be held at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, October 21, 2023, in Straatmeyer Rehearsal Room, Heritage Center.

"I'm really pleased to be a part of this 20-year continuing effort to shape and grow good character here at the University of Dubuque. I look forward to getting together with Wendt Character Scholar alumni at our reunion in October as well as celebrating all year the good character work that so many people have been involved in here at UD over the years," said Mary Bryant, MFA, director of media and programming in the Wendt Character Initiative who is in her eighth year with the initiative.

Those with the Wendt Character Initiative are excited for the next 20 years.

"The thing about character education work is that there's always more to do and there are a myriad of ways to do it. Working with such thoughtful and kind people as the faculty and staff, developing new programs, creating new experiences, and envisioning possibilities makes this work deeply rewarding and joyful," Ward said.