Out of the classroom, into the world

Goal 1: Offer the best
undergraduate experience in a research university

Tom Westphal, 19, is not a typical WSU student, but in some ways he is a model student — a model of student engagement.

He arrived at WSU in 2005 as a Regents Scholar and already had 20 units of college credit. He spent the summer of 2006 as an intern in Sen. Maria Cantwell’s office in Washington, D.C., and this semester he is studying international politics at the University of Wales.

The native of Richland, Wash., has another D.C. internship arranged for this summer through the Washington Center, and he hopes to work at the Department of Defense, in part because it will help him flesh out his honors thesis.

“It’s titled ‘Supplier-Client Relationships: Dependency and the Arms Trade,’ and is mostly about developing a qualitative model to depict the relationship between an arms-supplier state and the recipient government,” he said. “I actually (got) the idea and was able to do research on it when I was in D.C. last summer.”

Next fall he’ll be back on campus, coordinating a mentoring program for first-year students in the Honors College and taking courses with WSU faculty members who are experts in international politics and political psychology.

Internships, study abroad and undergraduate research, along with community service learning, have emerged as four important areas for enhancing the undergraduate experience.

“I would put them at the center, the core,” said Mary Wack, interim dean of the Office of Undergraduate Education OUE, because they all are connected to and extend learning that starts in the classroom.

“These are very powerful formats for experiential learning.”

According to data compiled by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), they are  powerful experiences not just for exceptionally high-achieving students such as Westphal — the kind of student WSU has been targeting as part of its Regents Scholars program — but for all students.

Engagement and its role in the undergraduate experience has received a lot of attention lately, as colleges across the country work to attract the brightest students, retain the ones they have and graduate productive, involved students.
Derek Bok, interim president of Harvard University, gave the keynote address at the National Symposium of Postsecondary Student Success in November, warning that the United States needs “more engaged and involved citizens, but that’s not what the undergraduate experience is providing.”

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bok enumerated a laundry list of contributing factors: a predominance of lecture-based classes, tests that do not measure higher thinking skills, lack of interaction between students and professors, insufficient training of graduate instructors and inattention to citizenship.

According to the NSSE data, intentional activities such as learning communities, senior capstone seminars, service learning and undergraduate research all bolster student engagement and, by extension, student satisfaction with their undergraduate experience. In an online discussion, George Kuh, director of NSSE and a professor of higher education at Indiana University, said, “The key is to scale up these kinds of activities so that they reach large numbers of students in meaningful ways.”

Al Jamison, interim vice president of the Office of Student Affairs, said WSU’s Strategic Plan with its explicit goal of “the best undergraduate experience at a research university” opened up a lot of doors and “gave us license to do some things.”

Along with the big, institutional changes, such as creating the OUE in 2004, there have been countless smaller but significant changes, from writing learning outcomes into student job descriptions, to boosting peer mentoring opportunities through Freshman Focus and Health and Wellness Services.

“There is a lot that goes on here, but it’s below most folks’ radar,” Jamison said. Though some changes may seem small, the philosophy behind them goes to the heart of the strategic plan.

The OUE attempts to make sure that the undergraduate experience is both intentional and coherent, Wack said. “If something is everybody’s business but nobody’s responsibility, it’s hard to get a handle on what is happening across campus,” she said.
For instance, WSU students have been interning, studying abroad, doing undergraduate research and community service for a very long time, Wack said, but they were supported and mentored by faculty and staff working mostly independently.
Now, she said, increased collaboration is starting to pay dividends.

“Our trajectory is upward in terms of participation in all these things,” she said. Internships and study abroad participation are both up sharply, nearly half of WSU students do some type of undergraduate research (including capstone projects) and nearly 75 percent of students do some type of service learning.

“They aren’t frills anymore,” said Wack.

Tom Westphal doesn’t call them frills either: “They are the stars of my resume,” he said.