Note: This is the first post with someone from Queens College and I hope a nice new dimension of this blog as Northeastern and Queens experiences merge. – Jim
The Development of a Passion for Learning
Voula Galanopoulos QC ’10 and Jim Stellar
Considering how involved I have become at Queens College it is has hard to imagine that when I started my first semester as a freshman I was incredibly unhappy. I attended high school a short bus ride away, and without a change in location, it was hard to feel that I was moving into a different stage of my life. My dissatisfaction was evident simply when remembering how I spent most of my time; I was trying to figure out into which CUNY to transfer and in looking at study abroad programs. It was only until I developed a relationship with one faculty member that I started to realize that there are opportunities here at Queens of which I can take advantage. It is only a matter of knowing how and where to look for the open doors. The Honors Program Director was able to guide me to the first of many crossroads I would encounter. I ventured down a route a handful of students before me have traveled adding my own footprints to the dirt path.
This brief story illustrates the struggle that many students have to fit into a large college (Queens College is now 20,000 students). Once they connect with someone, then the emotional-logic part of the brain starts to say that they are in the right place and that this institution can be good for them. In the “OtherLobe” thinking of this entire blog, that then opens up the cognitive learning mechanisms so that students try hard and perhaps even process better so that grades rise, paths get explored, and a positive upward cycle of growth begins. In the book “Outliers,” the author Malcolm Gladwell talks about how important are these little advantages to beginning that cycle which can result in tremendous accomplishments that later obscure the beginning conditions. Richard Light in his book “Making the Most out of College…” stresses that what students really want is a mentor. Ms. Galanopoulos has progressed now well beyond her Freshman year. Let me ask her to catch us up with where she is now and comment on how much she was influenced by other people in the process, particularly mentors.
The mentor relationship requires both individuals to be active members in a developing friendship. As I dove deeper into my studies at Queens College, I worked closely with many faculty members across multiple disciplines. The director of the Peer Counseling Program, has been particularly influential to me. Besides applying the valuable leadership and communication skills I learned from her student personnel classes to the world outside my semester schedule, her genuine interest in my well-being and her mutual respect for my experiences as a student fostered an environment that allowed my academic success to continue while I also committed to a full-time work schedule. As a student coordinator, I worked closely with the Director to plan and execute a three day academic retreat where students in the program actively practiced what is taught in the classroom through self-exploration and discovery. Now that I am nearing the end of my degree, I welcome more challenges. Currently, I am working in an animal neuroscience research laboratory setting on campus and working at Mt. Sinai under two professors of Psychology. This is also my second year working with Freshman Year Initiative, a program dedicated to helping incoming first semester freshman adjust to the new college experience. As a Mentor Supervisor, I am continuing to facilitate workshops, both large and small in scale, as well as providing the time to mentor 40 freshmen within two introductory English classes.
What do you think is in common inside you between all of these mentoring experiences, particularly the one with the Peer Counseling Director? How do we get other people to experience what you experienced?
What is special about the Peer Counseling Director, as well as the Honor Program Director lies with the fact that these faculty members invested in their students. In return, I feel passionately about both programs and I have become more loyal to Queens College and to the whole CUNY system, something that is important to me as a New Yorker. Part of the equation to make this happen is obviously to increase faculty and student relationships. Not surprisingly, I hope someday to join CUNY and to be that faculty member for another group of students.
What this interchange reveals to both of us is how powerful is the emotional connection of people in enabling the growth that College can produce in its students. Sure the knowledge is important and it is right there in the curriculum and the courses for the students to pick up and make it part of themselves. But most Freshman and many upper class students do not do that on their own. They need the enabling force of a mentor to feel welcome, to become active, to take on the challenge of growing as a knowledge consumer and producer. It is like a brain area lights up and with it the learning machine starts in earnest. Psychologists know that memory can become near perfect when emotions are high. That is called flashbulb memory (e.g. where were you when the World Trade Towers came down on 9/11?). By inviting students in, college mentors create those conditions where learning is high. The cycle is often self-reinforcing leading to true accomplishment and a loyalty to the place where that awakening occurred. When we write again, maybe we will focus on where in the brain the neuropsychological literature suggests that awakening occurs.