University of Vermont

The Honors College

Message from the Dean - October 2010

Abu Rizvi

Richard Light, an education professor at Harvard, turns a familiar phrase about college on its head. We often hear, "Let's admit the best and brightest and get out of the way." He disagrees. In his book, "Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds," Light says that faculty members, staff and administrators should get in students' ways. He means not just that we need to teach students in the classroom. He means also that each student needs good advice on how to connect classroom learning with emerging interests, thus encouraging an intertwining of the two and making the educational experience much stronger and more satisfying. One of the main ways in which this connection arises is through activities students undertake outside the classroom. These activities could involve music, theatre, art, public service, a student-run newspaper or journal, volunteer groups, religious organizations, athletics, internships, employment, or research. Increasing the quantity of such activities for a student isn't the right target; indeed, too many such involvements can distract from a satisfying academic career. Rather, it is the ability of the activity to animate a student's formal learning which, in turn, may lead to a more successful pursuit of the activity itself, that seems to be what students should pursue. Why this connection should be so helpful might not be clear from this discussion. So here is a case of a UVM student that illustrates what Light meant.

When this Honors College student (who recently graduated) arrived on campus four years ago she wanted preparation to become a doctor, as many students do. Just like those students she really couldn't say why she wanted to pursue medicine with much precision, though she did utter the common phrase about wanting to help others. She was doing well in her classes but didn't feel particularly motivated by her coursework. Her goal simply seemed to be to get outstanding grades (so as to get into medical school). We advised her to consider working with a professor who runs a malaria research lab. This made sense to her. If she was going to pursue medicine, she might as well learn what it was like to work in a life sciences lab. At first, her work in the lab involved getting used to its protocols and procedures, often with the assistance of the graduate students who also were part of the malaria research team. But soon enough, she became absorbed by the work. As her interest in parasitology grew, her academic plans changed and came into sharper focus. Rather than pursuing a major in Biology, she decided it would be better to be a Mathematics major and a Biology minor, a combination that was encouraged by her membership in UVM's faculty-led Math-Bio Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. On the suggestion of the professor who was her research mentor, she applied for and was accepted as a summer research fellow at another university's lab, where she worked under the supervision of one of the most eminent researchers in malaria studies. She also applied for and won funding from UVM for her research pursuits. As her work became more sophisticated she broke new ground and her findings were published in two major journals. This student now knew not only that she wanted to pursue medicine but also knew why. In fact, she modified her plans to study medicine by opting to pursue M.D. and Ph.D. degrees simultaneously. In her senior year she was offered admission at half a dozen M.D./Ph.D. programs, and chose among them the one at the University of Pennsylvania.

In this student's case, an activity outside the classroom - mentored undergraduate research - was central to reinforcing her decision to pursue medicine. It also allowed her to change her academic focus and gave meaning to her coursework. This is exactly what Richard Light meant when he noticed that students' academic careers went better when they connected their activities and their coursework. Not every student finds such a strong connection between these two pursuits, but many do, and many more would benefit from advice that allowed them to see such connections. Nor is this the only reason to pursue these activities: it is often enough to do them because they are fun or pay money, or allow students to learn skills or exercise their talents, or because they help those in need. But in order for us to make a student's academic career more successful and rewarding, the link between activities and learning is one that we should advise students to forge. That the activities are fun and rewarding makes this advice that much easier to give.

The student I wrote about could have had an academic career that simply resulted in good grades. But her interests outside the classroom breathed life into her academic interests and allowed them to develop in a particularly successful and satisfying way. I'm happy her advisors and mentors got in her way.

Last modified September 29 2010 04:02 PM