View from a special experiential scholarship program
Valerie De Jianne NU ’05 and Jim Stellar
Valerie was in the first group of students at Northeastern University when I was Dean to win a 21st Century Scholarship. She and her peers were selected from the best students in the Freshman class and were given a alumni donor-based tuition scholarship of $5,000 a year for the remaining 4 years of their undergraduate program (remember the Northeastern coop-based program can be 5 years), She was also given a $5,000 account in the Dean’s Office that could be used for an experiential project. To get access to that account, the student has to first develop an experiential project with a faculty member as a project mentor and meet with the alumni donor about once a year as a general life-skills mentor. I have asked Valerie to answer a few questions as this experience is an example of a program targeted at the “other lobe of the brain” and may be an example to our thinking.
Valerie, let’s start with you describing what you ended up doing as a project after you won the scholarship.
I have to admit; I did struggle with this for a while. During my time at Northeastern I was studying not only Communications, but also Education and Art. I recall having ideas in each discipline that I was interested in exploring or testing with the help of this program, but when it came to academic research (what it seemed to me like most of the other scholars were employing in their own projects), I felt like a fish out of water. After much debate, I decided to pursue what I felt most passionately about in the hopes it would result in a better representation of my work than something that felt difficult or forced to me. I decided to couple my digital photography lab with a photography project on the beauty of The Garden State. I wanted to showcase the beauty of my home state in a place where its perception was so surprisingly negative. I traveled home whenever possible to capture the different seasons in the area surrounding my home. I printed a series of 12 13 x 19” digital photos of rural, agricultural, and shore scenes that I thought would be the most surprising to anyone who thought of New Jersey as an industrial, smog-filled, and unappealing place. They are currently hanging in the College of Arts & Sciences Building.
Thanks, now please describe how you interacted with the faculty member and the donor and what you got from each of them that contributed to your undergraduate studies.
Since I had not chosen a project related to my core discipline, I had a difficult time finding a member of the Art faculty interested in working with me to the extent that I had hoped. This was absolutely fine, as my relationship with you more than made up for it. The relationship with my alumni donors (a husband and wife) and with their family members was by far the most valuable part of the experience for me. Prior to receiving the scholarship, I remember I was considering transferring. This program gave me the cohesion and inspiration I was lacking from my experience at Northeastern up until that point. Being exposed to the lifestyle of such thoroughly lovely and successful people gave me an entirely new perspective on what life could hold and my own potential. It invited me outside my very small world and let me look back in on it. It forced me to think on a different level and to strive for a new level of achievement that I knew existed, but could never have truly realized without the experience and opportunity this program and its generous donors afforded me.
Notice the value of mentoring here. Richard Light said in his book that what college students really want is a mentor. Why? Well for one thing we are just better at reflection, judging, and evaluating when we are with others, even just one other person. That is the classic other lobe phenomenon that probably got its start in early human evolution when we began to interact and working in teams conferred a big advantage. This 21st Century Scholarship program, of which Valerie was an early participant, was specifically designed by us to produce that mentoring. Another key feature was that the mentoring was by an untrained, non-academic, but powerful member of the university community – an alum who was a donor. It turned out here (and in most pairings) that these two really challenged each other (in a nice way) and Valerie grew as a result. She was able to explore ideas about what she might do with the major she had in a world where unless you are going into the field as a teacher, much of what you use is background and the ability to learn stuff. The combination of a calling out to a higher level of performance, intimate and ongoing reflection, and personal support from someone who likes you, is very hard to beat in terms of higher education programs. But the fact is that many programs of experiential education where students are placed in real world environments of cooperative education, unpaid internship, service, undergraduate research, abroad programs, or combination of them, deliver in just this way. The very open-endedness is the key to their power. The real world nature is the key to their success. Sooner or later, we are all headed in to the real world where we will learn. Why not get there earlier?
Agreed. The experience as a whole did seem like a leg up and I will always consider it to be the most valuable part of my experience at the University. I came out of it with a broadened perspective, clearer path, and primarily a confidence that I would never have conjured on my own. In my case, it had to be given.