Moving beyond the classroom
Students find intellectual growth outside the lecture hall
The undergraduate experience
The second in an occasional series
Robert "Bo" Jones
|To satisfy their intellectual curiosity, many undergraduates participate in the hundreds of officially recognized student groups offered at U.Va., such as the Competing Hoos in Mechanical Engineering. Here, third-year student Robert “Bo” Jones, president of Competing Hoos, welds a part for the mini-Baja racer that the team is building from scratch and hopes to race in a competition in June.
By Dan Heuchert
Robert “Bo” Jones has been an automotive technician for 10 years, although he works part-time these days as he completes his U.Va. undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. He’s used to working hands-on.
So Jones was a bit shocked when a third-year student asked him what WD40 was last year. For the record, it is a common household lubricant — something that most engineers in the field are likely familiar with, but doesn’t often come up in the school’s theory-based lectures.
“Engineering students aren’t exposed to how things actually happen in industry,” Jones said.
That thought drives him as president of Competing Hoos in Mechanical Engineering, a student organization founded last year to pursue engineering projects hands-on, from beginning to end. Their first project is to design and build a mini-Baja racer from scratch. Backed by nearly $8,000 from student activities fees, club members work on the car in a hanger at the University’s old Milton airfield near Keswick. They hope to enter it in a competition in June.
Increasingly, undergraduate students are looking for more from their college experiences than lectures and fraternity parties.
“Students today are really into experiential learning,” said Nicole Hurd, who heads U.Va.’s Center for Undergraduate Excellence, established to help Arts & Sciences students compete in national and College fellowship competitions, pursue research opportunities, and create interdisciplinary majors.
The University is happy to oblige, in part by backing student-run groups such as the Competing Hoos, and by fostering undergraduate research and establishing residential colleges.
“The theme is to support the intellectual mind in ways that are not present in a traditional setting,” said Patricia Lampkin, vice president for student affairs. “It has students practice what they are learning.”
Profile: Alana Levinson
Hometown: Palo Alto, California
How living in the International Residential College has enriched her intellectual life:
“IRC programs raise the bar for the intellectual experience at college inside and outside the residential college walls. Of course, I find out about events that happen sponsored by the IRC, but because IRC residents are also active people, I find out about a myriad of other events through e-mail and word of mouth.
“A side benefit I have gained from the IRC is help with language skill development. I take Arabic, and … I get to go home to an environment in which there are multiple native speakers of multiple dialects.
“One of the problems with a big university like U.Va. is that it’s difficult to find smaller communities. However, the staff (Brad Brown, Carol Brown, Marga Odahowski, Jill Napier and the cleaning staff) has made the IRC a perfect smaller community to use as a home within the University. Everyone there knows my name, I can’t get lost there and I’m certainly never going to go hungry there.
“... The IRC creates the social networks that will usher in a new generation of politicians, policy-makers, [and] philanthropists who work together globally and locally.
“And it’s just fun. Whenever a student is happy and feeling at home, he/she is bound to do much better at school.”
CIOs fill curricular voids
Every spring, a Student Council committee is given a major task: divvy up hundreds of thousands of dollars among hundreds of officially recognized student groups, called contracted independent organizations or CIOs.
The funds come from the $47 Student Activity Fee, charged to every student along with tuition. CIOs may apply for funding and the use of other University resources, including space and mailboxes. This year, Student Council allotted more than $616,000.
A printout of Student Council’s online CIO listing is 14 pages long, and includes co-curricular, ethnic/cultural, fine arts, hobby, nonpolitical/speakers, political, religious, service, information/entertainment, co-ed fraternal and Greek organizations, club sports and honor societies.
Third-year student Kate Walters revived the Pre-Veterinary Society last year after its CIO status lapsed a few years ago. The club has an e-mail list of nearly 70 members, and draws around 18 people to its meetings, she said.
CIO status allows the club to host speakers in U.Va. spaces, and to reimburse drivers who transport club members on field trips to Va. Tech’s veterinary college and the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Club members also volunteer at local animal shelters and provide overnight coverage during foaling season at an Earlysville equine clinic.
A biology major, Walters said the club fills a void in her studies, which focus more often on specific molecules than entire organisms. “U.Va. really doesn’t cater to pre-vet students,” she said. “It’s really a space we’re trying to fill.”
When fourth-year student Meghan E. Sullivan won a Rhodes Scholarship last month, she credited her research experience with giving her an edge over the other finalists. Sullivan had received two Harrison Award undergraduate research fellowships from the University, each worth $3,000 to the student and $1,000 to a faculty mentor, in support of her study proposals. One award took her to Northern Ireland.
“That’s powerful, to see how undergraduate research is enhancing the undergraduate experience and launching students into the next phase of their careers,” said Hurd of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence.
Hurd estimates that half of undergraduate students will engage in some sort of independent research project before graduation.
Competition for the 40 Harrison Awards given annually is fierce, with fewer than 30 percent of the applications approved, said fourth-year student Maggie Samra, the outgoing president of the Undergraduate Research Network.
The network has a dual focus: to help students through the research process, including locating funding and mentors; and then providing outlets to present their findings, including hosting twice-yearly symposia and publishing Oculus, a biannual journal.
A second funding program proposed by the network, the $5,000 “Double-Hoo” grants — supporting undergraduate-graduate student teams for independent research — received 80 applications for three grants in its first year. U.Va. scrounged together funds for five more proposals. This year, 10 awards will be made, Hurd said.
What’s behind this boom in interest? “I think some people initially get involved because someone told them that some grad schools expect it,” Samra said. “But at some point it becomes valuable to them in a way that has nothing to do with résumés.”
Bringing college home
You’re not likely to find second-year student Alana Levinson along Rugby Road on a Friday night. She enjoys a good time as much as anyone, but to her a good time might be defined as a rap session with a student from Afghanistan or an impromptu Chinese cooking lesson.
Levinson lives in the International Residential College, the newest of three such colleges at U.Va. that combine housing with faculty interaction and intellectual themes. She picked it out as her future home two years ago, before arriving in Charlottesville.
Now she can go to her dorm and practice the Arabic she’s learning with native speakers, learn about world issues from faculty members and sample ethnic cuisine. She feels like she fits in.
“I think that if I hadn’t have lived here first year, my experience of the University would have been very different,” she said. “The IRC gave me a place to meet people — not like me, because I don’t think anybody here is like me — but in the same vein as me. “When I live at the IRC, college comes home with me.”
U.Va.’s residential colleges are modeled on the British system and those at a few Ivy League schools. Students and faculty share meals and living quarters. There are seminars and guest speakers, and space for informal interactions.
Levinson would like to see every dorm have a theme and a programming budget (college residents pay a separate program fee), but Lampkin, vice president for student affairs, said it is unlikely.
“We’re talking now about what the full picture will be,” she said. “I don’t know what the demand will be. We’re talking about maybe one or two more [colleges], but I don’t think we will ever have a full system.”
Perhaps she could get an undergraduate student to research it for her.