UB's Undergraduate Academies Enriches Students and Allows Them to Excel

By Bert Gambini

Release Date: April 26, 2012

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Emily Fiore in the Phillippines

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 Academies.

"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 Borden.

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 non-Academies peers.

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 non-Academies groups.

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 UB.

"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," Borden said.

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 week stay.

"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 her honor.

"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 as well.

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 consulting firm.

"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."