Gladly would they learn

Author: Jeremy D. Bonfiglio


Jenna Knapp can’t stop thinking about El Salvador. She was 16 when she first traveled to the Central American country on a mission trip, unaware of what she would find in the poor, rural village where she’d reside.

El Salvador’s 12-year civil war had ended in 1992, but a series of natural disasters, including earthquakes, a volcanic eruption and a drought that destroyed 80 percent of the country’s crops, only brought new hardships to a place that had yet to recover from its old ones.

When Knapp ’10 returned to the United States, the Indianapolis teenager could claim to have seen true suffering. But she also witnessed a hospitality so humbling that it not only changed the direction of her own life but moved her to change the lives of others.

By the time she arrived at Notre Dame in autumn of 2006, she had decided that the education she received from that single experience had taught her more about life, conflict and struggle than she would ever learn in a classroom.

“I found there was a wealth of wisdom to be learned by leaving the school walls behind and stepping outside my comfort zone,” Knapp says. “I wanted to pursue some of the big questions that came out of that trip for me.”

During her time at Notre Dame, Knapp made two more trips to El Salvador to pursue those questions and seek out answers. She studied theology and taught English to children in an urban slum. She also spent six months in Uganda, where she volunteered for an organization that builds elementary schools in Africa, assisted in providing basic health care in Kampala and served as a substitute mother in a group home for 11 abandoned children.

Her research on the cycle of violence in the lives of Uganda’s street children became her senior thesis project. It also included so much previously unpublished information that it was sent to Uganda’s NGO community (nongovernmental organizations associated with the United Nations) to provide data that can help guide volunteers in the field.

Before graduating with bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and peace studies this past spring, Knapp also learned that she was the recipient of a coveted Fulbright Fellowship, which she’ll use to spend next year back in El Salvador researching gang violence and rehabilitation programs in Salvadoran prisons.

“I came to Notre Dame with the desire to spend as much time in the field as possible because I’ve found that’s where I’m able to learn the most,” Knapp says. “Notre Dame has been instrumental in helping me find numerous opportunities to do just that.”

Knapp’s undergraduate research experience may be the exception and not the rule among her peers, but the University’s newly christened Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement (CUSE) is designed to change that. CUSE opened in 2009 when the University combined its Undergraduate Research Initiative and its Fellowship Office, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2010 spring semester that CUSE moved into a central location on the second floor of Geddes Hall with a mission to boost intellectual vibrancy on campus, provide guidance, tools and funding for undergraduate research, and help students apply for and win national fellowships.

While the concept of undergraduate research has been around for decades, a national trend has intensified in recent years that encourages more undergraduates to take on complex research topics — often while abroad — complete a senior thesis, and seek out competitive grant and fellowship money for such scholarly pursuits.

Behind the trend lies a concern that college students aren’t getting the skills they need to compete in the 21st century global economy. This year’s Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education concluded that too many undergraduate students disengage, drop out or fail to master the reading, writing and thinking skills necessary for a successful future.

“One concern I’ve heard at Notre Dame is that we are producing fewer students who go on to get Ph.D.s, but it’s more than that,” CUSE director Dan Lindley says. “There’s a feeling on campus that we don’t generate enough intellectual engagement in students. We’re not sparking their interest the way that we should. This is more accurately a response to that.”

One reason the United States is trailing other nations in science and technology innovation, some educational experts contend, is that college students too often memorize and regurgitate facts without grasping the deeper concepts. That’s where research experience may help.

Whether in science or literature or history, research seems to do students all sorts of good. Not only are undergraduate researchers more engaged in their subject, professors say, but they also appear to improve more broadly in teamwork and collegiality — skills employers value but complain students don’t typically learn in the classroom.

In fact, for most college students conducting research, the goal is not based on producing a well-regarded journal paper or finding a historic breakthrough. The experience is more about learning that does not involve sitting in a lecture hall.

“I used to be a First Year of Studies adviser so I know how students are reluctant to bring up an idea because they’re ‘just freshmen’ or whatever,” says Cecilia Lucero, CUSE’s assistant director for undergraduate research. “So we want to make them comfortable enough to really share their ideas. Then we can pair them with faculty who can help guide them and challenge them throughout their college career. I’m amazed at the things students research. They’re eager to be intellectually engaged. And when they see other students undertaking research, they’re more willing to take that risk themselves.”

One of the challenges facing the CUSE staff is getting undergraduates to realize that research isn’t something that occurs only in a laboratory. In fact, projects at Notre Dame have included everything from examining 16th century tombstones in Rome to investigating the effects of timber harvesting on salmon streams in southeast Alaska to writing a first novel.

“There’s the research everyone thinks of, which is to form a hypothesis and then do field study to test that hypothesis,” Lucero says. “But research can also be critical analysis of a subject. It can be a creative endeavor. It can be academic study of the history of an artist and then producing a piece of artwork. It can also be based on an internship, not just going 9 to 5, but really exploring how it correlates with your own major. Research, to me, is really about students . . . discovering what they are passionate about, what they care about.”

Alejandra Gutzeit, a fifth-year architecture student who graduated in May, echoes Lucero’s assertion. For her senior thesis, which is now a requirement in the architecture program, Gutzeit combined her penchant for architecture and anthropology by putting together a grant proposal that funded a trip to Peru. Her research in Cusco consisted of studying architectural space and the cultural significance of the city’s urban layout. Her study allowed her to design plans for a cultural center that would combine her own design sensibilities while honoring Peruvian culture.

“We’ve been in classrooms all our lives,” Gutzeit says, “but when you start to do research on your own and take an avenue to discover something new and actually go to the place that information was most available or where that history was alive or that culture was alive, all of a sudden it throws you in it. You’re kind of learning how to learn.”

Gutzeit says her only regret is that she didn’t explore research opportunities earlier in her college career. In fact, part of this educational trend is steering undergraduate students into research at a much earlier stage.

“Research centers are a little off the radar for most undergraduates,” Lindley says, “so outreach is a huge part of our job. We’re now starting even before students get here by working with admissions and student advisers. We’re part of the sales pitch. When potential students come here for their campus visit we’re letting them know that there are opportunities to study outside the classroom, that they can help shape their own educational path, their own college experience.”

As CUSE’s associate director of scholarly engagement, Philippe Collon works with the admissions office and First Year of Studies to identify motivated students. He is also tasked with establishing a network of faculty liaisons to enhance collaborations with CUSE, coordinating a faculty-student matching service based on research interests and working with rectors to help increase independent intellectual activity and programming in the dorms.

“It’s not unique, but we are certainly in a position of natural leadership in the way we mentor students,” Lindley says. “If students come in with this idea from the beginning, then maybe we can get them thinking about coming up with their own questions rather than just giving them the answers.”

Patrick Tighe, who earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy in May, says finding academic mentors pointed him in a direction he never anticipated when he came to the University.

“I was fortunate to have really pro-active professors who encouraged me to pursue research and seek out these opportunities and make the most of my academic experience,” Tighe says. “I would have never thought about writing two theses with gender studies as a topic, but being open to that academic spirit really changed my experience. It challenged me to get out of that comfort zone, but that’s when I learned the most about myself and other people.”

Tighe, who spent time in Ghana researching female oppression in the African country, wrote an academic paper on the topic that he also presented at a gender studies conference. He later wrote a philosophy of law paper that looked at how people conceptualize rape, another paper on the pornography debate, and a play about pornography and how it affects a relationship between a man and a woman.

“Having to develop your own questions and to try to develop answers and look for answers, I think you become much more actively engaged in your own education,” Tighe says. “I’ve become more of a self-learner.”

Along with helping students find mentors for research projects, Lucero helps them find funding by tapping into the many centers on campus that offer financial support — and by delegating direct funds from the CUSE budget. She also has developed a common application form that allows students to apply to several funding sources at once.

Knapp, who is leading a ND student delegation aimed at improving disaster prevention efforts in an agrarian region of El Salvador before she begins her Fulbright year, says that without CUSE she might not have been able to obtain the project’s funding.

The delegation’s 14 ND engineers and peace studies students will spend 10 days in the region of Santiago Texacuangos, where crops were destroyed by Hurricane Ida in November 2009. The students will participate in community-led disaster prevention workshops and reconstruction efforts that include creating terraced soilbeds and planting native izote plants between crops, which helps prevent mudslides in the wake of natural disasters.

“CUSE can be a great resource for just helping kids figure out, first of all, that they are capable of doing research, which can seem daunting at times,” Knapp says. “Having the funding basis available to encourage students to go out and try research is really going to be the first step in building confidence as researchers, as students. It shows Notre Dame really values that field experience, the experience that is essential to a university education in my opinion.”

Students bitten by the research bug have another resource in Roberta Jordan, CUSE’s assistant director for national fellowships. Jordan not only helps recruit and assess undergraduates who apply for nationally competitive fellowships and scholarships, but she also mentors them through the application process and helps them crystallize their future trajectory, set goals and even plan their postgraduate studies.

“I’ve seen seniors who tell me, ‘I wish I had known you were here. I wish I had known of these opportunities,’” Jordan says. “They’ve heard of the Rhodes and the Fulbright, and that’s it. The number of fellowships and the process is an education for even those students.”

Jordan says educating University staff, faculty and administrators about these opportunities can be just as important as mentoring undergraduates. But, she adds, an even bigger goal is to help develop a campus culture where students encourage each other to high academic achievement. Even Knapp says she didn’t tell many people about her Fulbright win because she “felt funny about it.”

“How do we change that?” Jordan asks. “To be honest we haven’t figured that out yet.”
Jordan’s hope is that students like Knapp, Tighe and Gutzeit continue to share their experiences with their peers, and that their confidence and excitement will compel more students to seek out the CUSE office.

“So many students come in thinking, ‘Well, I go to my lectures, I passively take all these notes, I sit down and study and then I go take a test,’” Tighe says. “I think more students are realizing that that doesn’t have to be the only way of learning. You can actually become someone who creates a syllabus and you can do reading on your own and you can ask these really interesting questions.”

Of course some critics both on and off campus say this push for self-education is counterproductive to classroom work and that the undergraduate research trend will come and go. Lindley believes that notion may soon be a thing of the past.

“Everything we’ve seen shows that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says. “It’s the future, and it’s here.”

Jeremy D. Bonfiglio is a South Bend-based freelance writer and the staff features writer for The Herald-Palladium of St. Joseph, Michigan.