By Caitlin Edwards
For many Illinois graduate students, the classroom is just one avenue for teaching and learning. We asked three graduate students to reflect on their experiences working with programs that served middle school, high school, and incoming graduate students.
Randi Congleton, a fourth year PhD student in Higher Education, spent much of her summer working as the Coordinator for the Summer Pre-Doctoral Institute (SPI) where she helped incoming graduate students gain confidence in their research and presentation skills.
Analytical Chemistry PhD student, Heather Robison, helps lead the “Bonding with Chemistry” Girls Day Camp which brings middle school girls to campus to help foster their love of chemistry and the sciences.
For Philosophy PhD candidate, Adam Edwards, this past summer marked his first as the director of the Illinois Lyceum, a free week-long summer day-camp dedicated to teaching local high school students about philosophy.
Although their research interests and programs differ, they shared a common outcome. Through mentoring, they’d learned as much as they taught. They shared their thoughts with Grad Life.
What’s the most rewarding part of your role in the program?
Heather: As organizers, we want everything to be executed well, but more importantly, we want the girls to leave excited and still thinking about what they did throughout the day. This year for instance, we had a fireworks station and graduate students had built a bottle rocket demonstration that proved to be a bit finicky. After an entire day of false starts and surprises at that station, the last group saw the most perfect launch and I have to admit, I cheered louder than the girls! The group was buzzing and everyone had something to say about how and why it worked.
Randi: Being able to pay it forward. There were individuals along my academic trajectory who served as support and mentors and introduced me to programs and people who had access to the knowledge I needed. Now I’m able to do that for other students.
Adam: In my normal teaching and research work, I would never have taught a class on aesthetics, but the Lyceum gave me an opportunity to do that and to learn along with these students. It’s an opportunity to expand your teaching chops, experience teaching an audience that’s not typical for (university) Teaching Assistants.
I think it’s part of the mission of a public university to do this kind of outreach in the community and teach beyond just the confines of the classroom. It is part and parcel of what it is to be a public university. For a lot of students this might be the first time they encounter skeptical arguments about knowledge, or arguments for or against God. So we try to help them consider arguments for and against some claim without feeling committed to a position. We ask them to suppose that if such and such were true, what the consequences of that would be. We want them to have the resources to think about these foundational questions – what is knowledge, what is it to live a good life, what is truth – in a way that helps them think critically in all areas.
What have you learned from your mentees?
Randi: Always expect the unexpected. When you think you have it, you don’t. You are constantly learning even when you are passing on information. Students always bring their own experiences – especially when we are talking about graduate students. They are coming from all different backgrounds, some are straight from masters programs, some have stepped out of school, there are students with families, and their ages can range everywhere from 18-50. Mentees have taught me to challenge my assumptions about how graduate students behave or should behave. Everyone comes to us with whatever was deposited prior to Illinois including opportunities, strengths, and challenges as well. I learn every day that there is no typical graduate student. There are no generalizations you can make about what a student will need when they come in the door.
Adam: Just like how good physical tools extend the scope and power of human ability, having good thinking tools can dramatically improve your ability to think clearly. Lyceum participants who are encountering philosophy for the first time will often approach me at the end of the day to explain how something we discussed helped them with a problem in their life. Before the Lyceum, they didn't have the thinking tools to deal with the problem appropriately. These students are grappling with serious questions about their own identities, about what the right action is in a given situation, or about how to distinguish fact from opinion. Learning how to use these 'thought technologies' helps them dramatically in organizing their own thinking and assessing others' arguments.
They've also taught me the importance of keeping philosophical discussions up to date. My students are actually really great at relating the arguments we discuss to contemporary issues. It's important to keep philosophical questions connected to the day-to-day experiences that make us have them in the first place.
Heather: Curiosity isn’t just for middle schoolers. Graduate school is the perfect place to really delve into new and exciting work, but for many of us, it’s also tough to put yourself out there and take risks on projects. Our campers remind me that questioning everything is how you learn, and boy do they question everything—they just want to know how and why these experiments work. That curiosity and desire to keep learning is something so important for your entire scientific career.
What’s the best advice you’ve received from a mentor?
Heather: If what you are doing does not excite you—don’t do it. But if it does motivate you, do it well! Don’t be afraid of the hardest questions and work with passion. I am a graduate student today because of those who taught me that chemistry could be both challenging and exciting and I hope to convey that at camp every year!
Randi: Be a branch on the tree, don’t try to grow the tree. As a grad student, it’s easy to come up with this grand idea, and you think your research has to be the answer to this big question. But really, just extend the research, contribute to what is already there. Then you can continue your full research agenda later. Scale down the ideas now to something that is valuable, but doable and won’t keep you here forever.
Adam: Best advice I've ever received from a mentor was from a former professor in the classics department at my undergrad university. He was a young guy who by all standard measures was going to have a successful academic career, but he decided to leave to do something else instead. He taught me that what matters is doing good, important work; it's not enough to pursue something because you like the idea of being the kind of person who does that work.
Randi graduated from Penn State University with a degree in Agricultural and Extension Education, and received her Master’s in Community Services at Michigan University. She worked as the Assistant Director of Greek Life at Penn State University, then Director of Multicultural Affairs at Penn State, for four years before joining the University of Illinois to pursue a PhD in Higher Education. She participated in the Summer Pre-Doctoral Institute (SPI) in the summer of 2012 and most recently as Coordinator in the same program where she mentored incoming doctoral students from traditionally underrepresented groups.
Her primary research interest includes issues of transition, access and equity, mentoring relationships in graduate education, and the experiences of Graduate Diversity Officers. Her dissertation work examines the role of a graduate acclimation program on first-year transition and socialization to the PhD.
Adam graduated from Wake Forest University with a degree in physics and philosophy. After a year working in a Machine Learning Lab at Wake Forest Baptist Health, he joined the philosophy department at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
Shortly after starting his PhD, he began working with the Illinois Lyceum, a week-long day camp that enables local high school students to engage with some of the most challenging questions that face humanity all while getting an overview of several subject areas in philosophy. He currently serves as the Program Director and teaches several courses during the summer camp.
Heather graduated from The Ohio State University in 2012 with a Bachelor’s in Chemistry and a minor in Neuroscience. In the fall of 2012, she entered the Ph.D. program in Chemistry at the University of Illinois as an analytical chemistry graduate student in Ryan Bailey’s research group. She helps lead the “Bonding with Chemistry” Girls Day Camp which brings middle school girls to campus to help foster their love of chemistry and the sciences.