BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "I want to be mayor of Buffalo," said Mike
Puma, a University at Buffalo freshman at the time.
It was an impressive goal and a statement made with such
conviction that it immediately caught the attention of Hadar
Borden, administrative director of UB's Undergraduate
"Mike was a psychology major, but didn't seem committed to the
program," said Borden, who was riding with a group of students to
Buffalo City Hall for a visit with Mayor Byron Brown.
That morning, Puma mentioned how his father's interest in
historic buildings had stimulated his own interest in preservation.
He was already serving as an advisory committee member for the
Central Terminal, but Puma had yet to channel anything related to
historical architecture into his academic life.
"We talked about his interest in architectural heritage and how
the Environmental Design Program at UB could provide the tools to
help him develop that interest into a career possibility," said
Puma was a perfect example of the type of student who benefits
from the Undergraduate Academies, a living and learning community
that looks for students with a genuine interest in its themes of
Civic Engagement, Global Perspectives and Research Exploration.
The Undergraduate Academies typically welcomes about 150
students a year. The only requirement is a commitment to the
program's themes. In fact, there are plans by fall 2013 to include
Entrepreneurship and Sustainability as two new themes.
The experience can assume different shapes from living within
the community in the university's Ellicott Complex, to
participating in the learning component, or both. Borden said this
allows for a blended experience that presents learning
opportunities in many places and contexts.
These opportunities not only enrich participants but give them a
potential advantage over other students. Research indicates that
freshmen entering the Undergraduate Academies between fall 2008 and
fall 2010 were less likely to have academic difficulty than their
These trends were even stronger for students who lived in an
Academies residential program as freshmen. In the three most recent
incoming classes, yearly cumulative quality point averages (QPAs)
for Undergraduate Academies' residents ranged from 3.18 to 3.29,
significantly better than both the non-resident Academies and
The learning environment of the Undergraduate Academies put many
opportunities under its broad canopy. Borden said the programs for
each semester are carefully crafted by faculty and students who
develop a list of topics to be explored through lectures,
excursions, informal dinners and casual discussions. It is an
unconfined collective experience that requires an arena that might
begin in the classroom, but will eventually extend to the group's
common space, into its residential community, and out to the larger
Western New York community.
Borden said the mission is to make sure students connect with
faculty, staff, alumni and other leaders during their four years at
"We take our themes and partner with groups like the Alumni
Association on events that put students in touch with people that
might help them along a study path and toward a career goal,"
Emily Fiore, a junior at UB, said those events have been a
valuable part of her experience at UB.
"Through networking dinners alone, I was able to land a research
position, work in an operating room, and shadow a surgeon through
an open-heart procedure," she said.
With Borden's help, Fiore was also able to secure a position
working at a clinic in the Philippines during winter break.
A certified Emergency Medical Technician, Fiore wanted to apply
her skills in a part of the world that was struggling with medical
challenges such as a lack of staff and supplies.
"I knew there were shortages, but I didn't realize how bad it
was until I got there," she said.
Fiore's work started before she even left. She organized a
sterile glove drive, not only collecting the desperately needed
items but also writing the grant which provided the money to ship
them to her destination.
But Fiore would help with a few other arrivals during her two
"I certainly didn't expect to deliver three babies," she said.
"That was a surprise."
Nor did she expect that one of those children would be named in
"It was actually the grandmother's suggestion," she said. "I
think the mother was too tired to object."
These experiences were all built on a platform of engagement
that put students in touch with those who helped them identify and
build upon their goals.
That might involve a member of a given organization visiting
campus or in the case of Annie Monks, a UB junior, it might involve
helping to form an entirely new organization, such as the UB's
chapter of Active Minds.
"I would never have known about Active Minds if it weren't for
the Undergraduate Academies," said Monks.
Active Minds is an organization that strives to help change the
perception of mental issues on college campuses. Monks' was a
founding member of the UB group dedicated to mental health
awareness, education and advocacy.
"It's opening a lot of eyes," she said.
Yet in many ways, the Undergraduate Academies opened Monks' eyes
Taking part in a Global Perspectives seminar, with SUNY
Distinguished Service Professor Claude Welch, inspired Monks'
interest in human rights, leading the French and Spanish language
major to visit and study in Nicaragua and Cuba.
"I spent time taking classes with Cuban students," she said.
"The perspective of history on events like the embargo of Cuba and
the Bay of Pigs is fascinating when taught and learned from a
different vantage point."
Monks said the Undergraduate Academies in general gave her new
perspectives and introduced her to ideas that have helped to make
her a more informed citizen -- maybe one who someday will support
Mike Puma's mayoral campaign -- if it materializes.
"I don't know if I'll enter politics," Puma said. "But I want to
be in some role that allows me to make real change."
He may be well on that path. Puma was able to get an internship
at Preservation Studios in Buffalo. Today, he serves as a project
manager with the full service historical preservation and
"My position in many ways is the result of the great contacts
and great relationships I made with Undergraduate Academies," he
said. "It put me in touch with people who otherwise would have been
unknown or out of reach."