This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Undergraduate Academies’ success
fosters campuswide community

Claude Welch (center), SUNY Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Political Science and a former director of the Global Perspectives Academy, participates in one of the Undergraduate Academies' student-faculty dinners earlier this semester. Photo: UNDERGRADUATE ACADEMIES

  • “The Undergraduate Academies are a hidden jewel, and students are discovering it before anyone else, because they are the ones jumping in and participating first.”

    James Jensen
    Director, Research Explorations Academy
Published: December 16, 2010

Once a small pilot program launched in 2007 to give UB students a taste of a “living and learning community” and help expand their intellectual horizons, the Undergraduate Academies (UA) have become a dynamic, unifying force that drives scholarly and social connections across campus.

The UA are run by a central office that oversees three academic groups. Each group is designed around a different theme: civic engagement, global perspectives and research exploration. Undergraduates can join at any time during their four years.

Hadar Borden, the UA’s administrative director, says the only prerequisite is intellectual curiosity. The secret to the program, she adds, is its flexibility; students can dip in and out as their time and interests allow, and along the way refine existing skills or pick up new knowledge beyond what they learn through their regular coursework. This year’s UA class totaled around 123 students at various levels of involvement—a number that has steadily increased over the years, Borden reports.

Students also can choose to take classes, live together on one of six designated floors in Richmond Hall in the Ellicott Complex, attend activities, or all three. The cost to students is free; funding comes from UB, private sources and a 2010-11 grant from the SUNY Office of Diversity and Educational Equity.

The three academies are led by faculty academic directors responsible for organizing and leading a semester of four-week-long class sessions, while Borden’s office organizes other workshops, facilitated discussions, presentations, films and off-campus excursions. Students who choose to take classes typically take weekly seminars like UE130, an introductory series designed to ease them into the academy community. At the end of each four-week session, the cohort enrolled in classes can rotate to another academy in the fall, and then choose their favorite for the spring semester.

The busy year-long schedule includes programs and activities hosted either by one academy or all three, with 16 weekly themes based on current events or student and faculty interests. Many events are open to the entire UB community: workshops on mentoring, faculty-student dinners, UB community programs like International Education Week and such off-campus charity events as the recent Polar Plunge, a chilly swim in Lake Erie to support the Special Olympics. On Tuesdays, UB faculty and students gather to nibble trail mix and yogurt parfaits at casual “Yak-n-Snacks” socials, held in the iconic, neon-green UA headquarters in Norton Hall.

This spring’s schedule will include a panel discussion with UB faculty about race and gender blindness, a student field trip to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and a keynote speaker (to be announced). A dinner sponsored by the UA and the UB Alumni Association will bring alumni on campus to discuss careers in the sciences. Borden adds that alumni connections and career paths are part of the UA mission to help students beyond college. “That’s part of the life-long learning aspect we want to create,” she says.

The program also touches more than just students; it motivates the faculty who work with them.

David Fertig, associate professor of linguistics and director of the Global Explorations Academy, first heard about the UA through a colleague. He says he has enjoyed watching students meet people from across campus. “I’m excited by their motivation and enthusiasm, especially with the classroom discussions,” he says.

Barbara Bono, associate professor of English and director of the Civic Engagement Academy, says she hasn’t seen this breadth of access for students since she helped develop undergraduate curriculum 20 years ago. She and Fertig are wrapping up their first semester as academy directors.

The SUNY grant supports this year’s general theme of “Gender and Education: Women in Science.” According to engineering faculty member James Jensen, who directs the Research Explorations Academy and helped develop the proposal with Jason Adsit of the UB Teaching and Learning Center, the funding focuses on diversity as defined as gender, and specifically how STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are represented for females and minorities. The idea originated in Research Explorations, but quickly spread to the other two academies, Jensen says. “We’re looking at ways in which girls in particular are exposed to STEM, but we’re also thinking about how other groups get involved in the sciences and other disciplines.”

Fertig recalls leading students in what he describes as an “eye-opening” conversation about “signing” communities—villages in Palestine, Ghana and even Martha’s Vineyard where residents use sign language to fully integrate deaf citizens into the local society. Bono brought Buffalo community activists into her Civic Engagement classroom, one of whom then took students downtown to tour West Side neighborhood revitalization projects. As the former director of the UB Gender Institute, she says she tries to keep the minority perspective when planning activities

Jensen, who also directs undergraduate studies in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, brought in solar cookers used in Third World countries to illustrate how innovative technical research can solve problems for populations around the world. He believes that these multidisciplinary activities prove the academies’ value as a conduit to get students more involved as citizens, whether in research, international studies or community service. “It’s our role to make students understand that this is part of what enlightened people do today, like thinking about the world and engaging in general inquiry,” he says.

All three directors stress that anybody at UB can get involved. Borden’s office welcomes faculty, staff and students to call or drop by.

“The Undergraduate Academies are a hidden jewel, and students are discovering it before anyone else, because they are the ones jumping in and participating first,” Jensen says proudly.

Explore the Undergraduate Academies online or by calling 645-8177.