Friday, January 11, 2013

As an incoming freshman at the University of Iowa, Kathryn Propstein wanted to take her education beyond the bachelor’s degree, but she had no idea how to make it happen.

That all changed in fall 2011 when she enrolled in the first-year seminar, “Grad School: Is it for You?” This seminar—believed to be a one-of-a-kind offering taught by two graduate deans—is designed to help freshmen make informed decisions about planning for their graduate education. The students are encouraged to choose coursework and activities that will strengthen their graduate applications.

With approximately four in ten college freshmen seeing a master’s degree in their future plans and two in ten doctoral studies, UI Graduate College Dean John Keller and Associate Dean Dan Berkowitz began co-teaching this seminar in the fall of 2009. Forty-five students, with interests ranging from medicine to journalism, have taken the seminar so far.

Students in the seminar, like many of their peers, are already thinking about education beyond a bachelor’s degree. They say a BA today is equivalent to what a high school degree once was, so they need to start planning for graduate school to get ahead in their careers.

“It’s not all about resume building. Admissions folks see through students who just try to beef up their transcript,” Propstein says. “The way to really excel and make yourself stand apart is to engage in leadership and other research opportunities that really interest you. You need to show commitment and passion.”

Despite being in the early stages of their academic careers, students such as Propstein ask insightful questions and look for ways to discover impactful leadership and research opportunities.

This student success program is modeled after a first-year seminar offered by the UI’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program.

“First-year seminars are a fantastic opportunity for undergraduates to learn about the UI campus, and the tools, skills and experiences they will need to succeed in college and beyond,” Dean Keller says. “Both seminars provide students with knowledge to develop personally, academically and intellectually. I’ve enjoyed getting to know our undergraduates, who are our future graduate and professional students.

“The goals of our seminars perfectly match the strategic goal of improving the likelihood of student success.”

WISE seminar teaches academic self-advocacy

WISE seeks to expand and improve educational and professional opportunities for women in all fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by facilitating individual, institutional, and social change.

“WISE is a community of women who have similar majors and career goals, making it a naturally supportive environment for first-year students,” says Chris Brus, WISE director. “We have found that if students are comfortable at ‘home,’ they are much more apt to get out there and excel.

“We are the foundation that helps boost retention of women in STEM majors, especially in the first two years.  After that, many students become more identified with groups aligned with their majors, which is totally appropriate.”

WISE women are encouraged to be an advocate for their own education. This point is emphasized in a first-year seminar titled, “Research 101: Exploring STEM Research.”

The seminar, offered for the second time in fall 2011, focuses on the business of research, including a review of historical studies that impact the way research is done today.

“That lesson of being the administrator of your own education is difficult for the students to learn at first,” says Kristin Wurster, a Ph.D. student in counseling psychology at the UI and coordinator for the WISE Living-Learning Community. “If you’re the administrator of your own education, you have to advocate for yourself, you have to ask questions, you have to connect with people. That is what’s going to control how much you get out of it.”

In fall 2011, students visited several faculty-led research areas across campus to gain practical knowledge of how research works. Eleven female faculty members and seven graduate students participated in the seminar, giving a total of 19 lab tours in 12 different labs.

Chemistry professor Sarah Larsen’s presentation had an impact on first-year student and Living-Learning Community member Claire North, inspiring her to begin working in Larsen’s lab in spring 2012.

Students in the seminar receive certification in an on-line Responsible Conduct in Research (RCR) course that allows them to become actively involved in faculty-led research as early as the spring semester of their first year.

“No matter what you’re interested in, the University has something to offer in that field. The biggest thing I took away from the seminar was the opportunities that the University has to offer,” North says. “College is what you make of it. If you want to get involved and you want to be a part of a community, WISE makes that easier.”