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Academic-Community Mentorships: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Undergraduate Education

Posted: 03/02/10 12:32 PM ET

With tuition rising, many are concerned with containing the cost of higher education. As important as this is, shouldn't we also focus on ways to maximize the benefits of college education, capitalizing on knowledge purchased with tuition dollars?

How can students better negotiate the undergraduate curriculum, choosing what to study from the wide array of opportunities? How might students fully understand connections between academic knowledge and desired careers?

Many undergraduates are uncertain about academic disciplines; hundreds of specialized possibilities often make little sense, appearing to have limited connection to students' interests and professional goals. How can freshmen make thoughtful choices when they don't fully understand items on the academic menu?

Professional development comes too late in the game, at the back end when soon-to-be graduates seek employment. These career services are not only separate from academic work but frequently tend to be viewed as secondary to scholarship and study.

Hence, many students leave school not fully tapping their interests and aptitudes. They graduate not completely appreciating the potential contribution of academic knowledge to their future and to solving society's serious problems.

What is needed is an entrepreneurial laboratory where students discover how their interests might serve as a compass for navigating the university, how academic knowledge equips them to make a difference, and how education prepares one to live a meaningful life.

There is hope. Consider one among many terrific programs at the University of Texas at Austin: the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Graduate School Internship, part of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE). More than 800 students have had the chance to work with veteran graduate students to determine whether they should pursue advanced study, becoming empowered to own their education and to leverage knowledge for social good -- to be "citizen scholars."

Interns -- most of whom are upperclassmen -- continually ask why the Pre-Grad Internship was one of few student-centered experiences, often their only chance in college to assess the value and usefulness of what they were learning.

So why not provide a similar incubator -- an IE academic/community mentorship -- to students at the beginning of their college tenure, permitting them to discover the relevance of academic disciplines and devise a thoughtful plan of academic study?

The mentorship program could extend the already successful Pre-Graduate School Internship. With graduate student mentors and community sponsors, freshmen and sophomores would work simultaneously inside and outside the university, ascertaining the unique perspectives of different fields of study and unearthing tangible links between academic concentrations and their passions and career aspirations.

This would not be job-training but instead what a colleague of mine calls "core-strengthening"--something at the heart of the humanistic mission of colleges and universities.

It would be a rigorous exercise; students would study and reflect upon their discipline. Rather than defaulting to a particular major, they would learn about the many available options. Exploration would culminate in students designing an entrepreneurial plan for their academic and post-academic career. They then could meaningfully pick a specialized major and weave together a tapestry of courses across the curriculum, defining and linking their academic and professional identities.

The mentorship program might reduce the time and cost of earning a degree. By providing students greater agency in their education, the program could shift the model of education from one of apprenticeship to certification to entitlement to one of discovery to ownership to accountability. Instead of simply offering students more courses, the mentorship program would equip underclassmen to take advantage of the already extensive catalog of courses, majors, minors and concentrations.

By demystifying education and forging connections between academe and society, the program also would significantly enhance the education of first-generation and underrepresented minority students, an effect already well-documented by the IE educational philosophy and Pre-Grad Internship (which since 2003 has enrolled a disproportionately higher percentage of underrepresented and first-generation students).

In addition, the academic/community mentorship would introduce a unique interdisciplinary learning laboratory, one that begins with students' interests rather than predetermined topics chosen in advance by faculty and administrators--a prospect that could stimulate student curiosity and increase engaged learning.

Finally, the mentorship program would afford valuable professional development for graduate students, permitting these future professors to acquire effective mentoring habits, enhance their marketability, and assist universities in forging long overdue connections between undergraduate and graduate education. In essence, the mentorship could help change the academic culture by educating a more enlightened generation of future academics.

Rising tuition is inevitable. So let's maximize the enormous value of college education. Why not boldly re-envision the undergraduate experience, permitting students to become intellectual entrepreneurs -- to study themselves, their disciplines and the ways scholarship can transform lives for the benefit of society?

The IE academic/community mentorship would be a modest first step.

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For more information: Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE),Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE), The University of Texas at Austin.
https://webspace.utexas.edu/cherwitz/www/ie