It has been almost a year since I left the University of Texas and the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. Leaving, that is. IE has become, as Tommy Darwin so compellingly argued a couple of weeks ago right here on ETA, a life force at one of the nation’s largest public universities. What began as bold initiative by professor Rick Cherwitz in the late 1990s is now a nationally recognized maverick—that’s right, I’m reclaiming the word!—in the herd mentality of university administration. IE supports and challenges faculty, staff, and students at all levels to think like entrepreneurs, to be innovative inventors and thinkers, to tolerate ambiguity, to seek allies, and to make bold moves. It is inspiring to see, and it was exciting to a part of.
Starting in August of 2005 I served as director of one of IE’s successful “programs”: the Pre-Graduate School Internship. (I place “program” in quotations marks to indicate the difference between traditional academic silo-mentality programming and new initiatives that grow from the IE platform. But that’s another post for another time). My primary responsibility as director was to oversee and advise about 80 undergraduate interns each semester. I lead regular meetings wherein the interns addressed those concerns that transcend disciplinary lines (e.g. application processes, funding, academic versus professional careers, life-work balance, etc.). Between meetings, I facilitated communication with interns and graduate student mentors, allowing them to share reflections on their works in progress.
The nuts ‘n bolts: The Pre-Graduate School Internship enables undergraduate students to earn academic credit working closely with a “faculty supervisor” and/or “graduate student mentor” to explore their chosen field of study. Interns learn about the unique aspects of graduate study that make it distinct from their undergraduate experience. Examples of internship activities include: attending graduate school classes, shadowing graduate student teaching and research assistants, attending seminars and departmental colloquia, interviewing faculty, collaborating with mentors on research projects, traveling to meetings of graduate and professional organizations, working in research labs and discussing graduate study and career development with faculty, professionals and graduate students. Additionally, all IE students keep a personal journal and attend workshops/meetings where they reflect on their experiences and exchange insights about themselves and the culture of academia.
The Big Picture: Pre-Graduate School Internship and its sister programs are sponsored by the University of Texas Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement. Each semester, 50% of participants are underrepresented minorities (African American, Latino or Native American) and/or first-generation (neither parent graduated from college) students. Almost 70% are female. The philosophy of intellectual entrepreneurship—empowering students to design and own a learning experience that unites their passions and academic interests—accounts for much of this effect. For example, rather than focusing exclusively on students already interested in graduate study and helping them navigate the application process, the Pre-Graduate School Internship provides an opportunity for students to discover their personal aspirations and explore the value of academic disciplines. The program’s mechanism for increasing diversity inheres in its capacity to help students discover otherwise unobserved connections between academia and personal and professional commitments. Interns become “intellectual entrepreneurs,” identifying their personal and professional goals, and discovering how advanced education can bring them to fruition; this includes acquiring an understanding of how graduate education equips students for meaningful civic or community engagement.
Leaving wasn’t easy. During my tenure as director, the Internship grew from fifteen students in the first semester to nearly one hundred in the spring of 2008, and now over a hundred. That’s not my being boastful; the Internship’s success attests not to one person’s creativity or organizational skills, but to an exigency in the academy. It is telling us that a need exists, for students as well as faculty. Just as some faculty seek new ways of being innovative problem solvers, engaging with the community around them in ways other than service delivery, so do students want to approach their college careers in less mechanistic ways than are currently the norm. “Entrepreneurial” doesn’t mean “corporate.” Let us use the term for its best possible potential: entrepreneurship is the realization of creative energy. And if that’s too touchy-feely for you, think of it as wielding power—intellectual, political, social, economic, artistic, collaborative.
While leaving a good thing is never easy, it often leads to other good things. In my current position as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL I am realizing that, while IE is continually challenged at UT, things are in motion there; on many other campuses, the fundamental philosophy that sustains IE as a “program” has yet to be introduced. That is the thrill of a new phase. And that will likely be the trajectory of my future postings.