Author: Sarah Andrus – Commissioning Editor, Research as a Transferable Skill
The success of undergraduate research as a high-impact practice in higher education has been well-documented, especially in the past decade as colleges and universities race to establish or expand these programs on their campuses. The Council on Undergraduate Research serves as the center of a growing network of institutions and individual thought leaders, and the collective experience of this thriving community of practice has generated an impressive collection of verified strategies and success stories. Not everyone agrees on a single set of best practices, which is not surprising given the highly diverse characteristics of institutions—from small liberal arts colleges to top-tier R1 universities—that sponsor these programs; but one success factor that appears to be universal is the role of passionate, engaged mentorship provided by faculty and researchers on campus.
Undergraduate research leaders agree that no institution, no matter how resource-rich its programs or how talented its students, can achieve the full potential of its initiatives without strong mentorship; the mere supervision of projects is simply not enough. This imperative is all the more essential when considering cohorts of students from less-privileged backgrounds, many of whose parents may have never imagined attending college, let alone participating in original research and discovery. Some institutions, like the University of Texas at El Paso, have a particularly impressive record of supporting and celebrating undergraduate research to achieve outstanding results for a unique student population.
UTEP is a public research university with about 23,000 undergraduate students, over 80% of whom are Hispanic American with an additional 5% coming from neighboring Mexico. 24% of its undergraduates are aged 25 or older, and 59% are classified as low-income. “UTEP students face multiple challenges associated with the fact that many are financially disadvantaged and first-generation college goers, so our priority is to get them to acquire critical skills while being paid a stipend,” says Dr. Lourdes E. Echegoyen, Director of UTEP’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI). “As these students engage in undergraduate research, they acquire skills that are sought by future employers, such as the ability to think independently and creatively, apply knowledge to new situations, solve complex problems, make ethical decisions, communicate effectively, network across cultures, and teach and lead others.” These professional and life skills are indispensable for students planning careers in any field, but for those who never considered attaining a college degree to be a sure thing, the surge in confidence can be life-changing.
COURI opened its doors in the fall of 2010, and under Dr. Echegoyen’s leadership the office has evolved to include the participation of a growing number of students across all disciplines. “At the office, we advise students as early as possible about the importance of participation in research for their overall development,” she says. “We seek funding to support our largely financially disadvantaged student population, so that instead of getting menial jobs off campus to help support themselves, they work on research projects relevant to their interests.” COURI tracks student participation in mentored research opportunities to determine its impact on their future education choices and careers. It also maintains a database of external summer opportunities and encourages students to apply in order to expand their horizon and experiences beyond UTEP.
Dr. Laura Diaz-Martinez, COURI’s Associate Director, finds her work rewarding in part because it gives her a chance to contribute to the type of program from which she herself benefited as an undergraduate student. “I can say that I’m such a strong proponent of undergraduate research because for me it simply opened the door to opportunities that I had never imagined,” she says. “As an undergraduate I was curious about research, but had no idea how to get there; I had never done a research project of any sort, since science fairs did not exist in my hometown [Aguascalientes, Mexico].” This experience is no doubt shared by many students who may be entering college without knowing that real research opportunities would be available to them. For Dr. Diaz-Martinez, “The most rewarding aspect is seeing our undergraduates blossom from beginner researchers, hesitantly trying to learn the ropes, to young researchers confidently presenting their work at conferences. Witnessing this change and seeing the students planning their future careers with the maturity and vision gained through the research process is simply the best reward I could ask for.”
The value of the support provided by COURI is not lost on the students who benefit from its programs. Ronda Esper, a fourth-year student who will be completing a five-year undergraduate degree in Public Health Promotion and Chemistry, notes how UTEP takes very seriously its mission of “helping propel students forward not just in education, but in socioeconomic status,” recognizing that many undergraduates are not just students, but may have their own families and complex work schedules. “They definitely celebrate the diverse student population, and you can tell they like to see students succeed.” Esper, who is passionate about public health advocacy in a border community struggling with uncertainty in the current political climate, enthusiastically recounts her “notable experiences with mentors” who share her passions and who have challenged her to take on increasingly advanced responsibilities. A pivotal moment came when she was given the opportunity to teach a freshman class on circadian rhythms, requiring her to quickly level-up her knowledge base and general confidence; she says it was this experience that made her excited about becoming a mentor herself, working with younger students in the lab and, through Dr. Echegoyen and UTEP’s BUILDing SCHOLARS program, being matched with a freshman student whom she has helped to navigate the many decisions and milestones of the college journey. “There’s something really rewarding about being able to share knowledge with others, to push yourself to a place where you feel confident enough to teach others,” she says.
Kathia Rodarte, a senior at UTEP who will soon graduate with a degree in Biological Sciences, is deeply appreciative of the support she has received from the university, her mentors, and research team members. In addition to receiving valuable guidance from faculty mentors, she says she finds it inspiring to be “surrounded by amazing scientists-in-training that know a lot about what they are doing and are passionate about it. It is that enthusiasm they have for science that has also driven me to want to pursue research.” As someone who had never previously considered a career in research, Rodarte hopes that her experience will be shared by others who decide to give it a chance: “My experiences allow me to tell students that are either not sure about research or are not thinking about it at all to give it a try, because just like me, they might be surprised by what this path has to offer.” Rodarte plans to continue studying biology in graduate school and ultimately obtain a PhD in biomedical research—a path that may never have seemed possible without the undergraduate research experience.
Another UTEP senior, Victor Hurtado, found his calling in Art History with a unique angle: he has been exploring the impact of “cultural security”—largely defined in terms of the preservation or destruction of historically significant artistic works—on the endurance of peoples and nations. Hurtado managed to find just the right mentor to support his research topic: Dr. Damien Van Puyvelde, former Professor of Intelligence and National Security at UTEP (now at the University of Glasgow, Scotland) helped him to focus his research and navigate the interdisciplinary complexities. As a participant in a COURI-managed program, Hurtado received a monetary award, professional development training, and help to arrange for sponsored travel for research purposes. It is his hope that all institutions will see the value in providing these opportunities to students. “It is indispensable for institutions to provide their students with undergraduate research opportunities at an early stage in their college careers,” he says. “As emergent professionals in various sectors, undergraduate research helps open high-impact experience opportunities and develops both soft and hard skills which do not only enhance a student’s marketability, but also enriches a desire for lifelong learning.”
The “desire for lifelong learning” is precisely what the proponents of undergraduate research at UTEP and institutions around the world hope to spark in the minds of all students, irrespective of background, disciplinary interests, or whether or not their career plans involve further adventures in academia. Dr. Diaz-Martinez reflects on the ultimate benefits of student research, noting that those benefits extend far beyond college: “I want as many students as possible to challenge themselves and knock on doors that they might not have considered before,” she says. “One of the best ways to do this is through research, scholarly and creative activities that allow the students to become true innovators, by asking questions that have never been asked before.”