Before coming to Iowa, Brandi Adams didn’t give graduate school much thought. Now, the senior math and physics major says she plans to “shoot for the stars” and get an advanced degree.
Her decision was based, in part, on the graduate student cohort in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ math department. The Luling, LA., native had been a student at Southern University in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit and was one of several undergraduates invited to continue her studies at Iowa.
“The graduate students helped me catch up academically and really involved me in the math community here,” says Adams, who will finish her undergraduate work at Iowa. “It’s been so nice to see people just like me who are aspiring to get graduate degrees. I originally wanted to be a high school teacher, but now I see that becoming a college professor is not so far-fetched.”
Although most UI undergraduates don’t share Adams’ unusual circumstances, they do have the same opportunity: to interact with the graduate student population. In fact, graduate students play a pivotal role in the education of undergraduates at Iowa, says Executive Vice President and Provost Michael J. Hogan.
“Probably their most familiar role on campus is as teaching assistants in lower-division courses, whether as discussion leaders or graders,” says Hogan, an F. Wendell Miller Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who earned graduate degrees from Iowa. “It’s a special time for graduate students, who are beginning to spend one-on-one quality time with students just a couple of years younger than they are. In addition to making suggestions for academic improvement, they advise undergraduates and talk with them about career plans. And because the age gap is still very small, it makes it easier for undergraduates to think of themselves in that position.”
These formal and informal relationships, Hogan adds, contribute to the University’s education of undergraduates and to the professional education and training of its graduate students.
Close personal and professional interaction with a graduate student mentor helped Erin Stevens, a May 2006 Iowa graduate in psychology, visualize academic life beyond a bachelor’s degree. The Perry, Iowa, native now works as a lab coordinator in the research lab where she first met UI doctoral candidate Kara Recker, and is applying to graduate schools.
“When I first started working in the lab my sophomore year, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, and Kara took me under her wing,” Stevens says. “She helped me select classes and assisted me with my graduate school applications. And, because she had just been through it, she could tell me what interviews were like and what to expect.”
For Bill Liechty, having a graduate student mentor has paid off—literally. The senior chemical engineering major from Marion, Iowa, was one of three UI students last year to win the nationally prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, a merit-based award that covers the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board for one to two years. He credits that honor, in part, to his mentor, Tim White, whom he met while working in a polymerization lab in the College of Engineering.
“Tim is more of a friend than a boss. I’ve used him as a sounding board for my career aspirations and picked his brain on how he decided what to do,” Liechty explains. “When I wrote an essay for the Goldwater application, he helped me edit it and use the correct terminology. He also helped indirectly through all of the conversations we had leading up to the application process....Working in the lab with him has lit a fire inside me and a passion for research.”
The undergraduates aren’t the only ones benefiting from the mentor relationship.
“As a PhD scientist, I’ll be managing researchers for the rest of my career,” says White, a Princeton, Ill., native on track to earn a doctorate in chemical engineering this fall. “This experience has given me a start in directing and managing research.”
Ian Besse, a PhD candidate in applied mathematics from Detroit Lakes, Minn., agrees that mentoring undergraduates such as Adams has provided insight that makes him a better teacher. Besse, who graduated from Grinnell College, also acknowledges that large universities such as Iowa offer a unique perspective for future scholars.
“I’m certainly happy with my undergraduate college of choice, but one of the things you give up going to a small school is the potential for having these multiple layers of academics,” he explains. “Undergraduates at Iowa are able to tap into that. They come away with a really solid idea of what it means to be a scholar in one’s field and what it means to devote your life to learning.”
by Sara Epstein Moninger