The Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program connects undergraduates who are new to research with experienced graduate students who mentor them through the research process. The application for 2020-21 Graduate Mentors is open through August 9. Learn more and apply at https://grad.illinois.edu/URAP. Below is a reflection by Teresa Greppi, a 2019-20 URAP Graduate Mentor.
Grading is the worst part of teaching. Teaching has many difficulties to navigate ranging from the logistical (Will the projector work today???) to the emotional (So many personalities going through so many different experiences) to the very, very random (What a delightful surprise to have a student show up with a service dog trainee with no prior warning! No sarcasm!). And while I value those experiences and opportunities immensely as the part of my career thus far I find most joyful and successful, nothing can really compare to the freedom of creating a curriculum in partnership with a single student, or the pride in watching them learn to trust themselves, or the creativity that emerges without the stress of creating graded assignments. I found that being a URAP Graduate Mentor allowed me to experiment with teaching in ways that are simply impossible in a formalized group class setting—and which were incredibly rewarding.
I applied to be a mentor for three reasons:
- It would be immensely helpful on the academic job market.
- A friend of mine who graduated a few years ago and got a tenure track position really enjoyed the experience and said it was immensely helpful on the job market.
- I thought I would enjoy it because of how much I like teaching and how well my students seem to respond to me (at least according to ICES! Side note: I also assign a lot of reading and am usually a “tough but fair” grader. Thanks for the feedback!)
All of those reasons have proven true so far. I think I enjoyed it so much because it allowed me to enjoy the best parts of teaching (cooperation, collaboration, confidence-building, critical debate) without being dragged down by the aspects I dislike (students who don’t want to be there, students who refuse to ask for help, pressure to meet deadlines, assignments that students stress about instead of experiment with, GRADING). I took the opportunity to practice as well: I emulated the excellent experiences I had in various independent studies from high school and into college and grad school. I did my best to connect with my mentees as people first, collaborators second, and finally as students (which may not suit everyone’s personal mentorship style but figuring that out is also part of the fun and part of the experiment!).
One of my mentees completed the program and presented a fantastic poster at the Undergraduate Research Symposium. I was continually floored by how quickly she honed her critical thinking skills and her ability to clearly and thoughtfully communicate her ideas about what she was ingesting intellectually. I am immensely proud of her.
However, I also learned that even when things seem to be going well, and everyone is doing the best they can, it may still not be enough. I think we all learned some version of that this spring too though. One of my wonderful mentees decided to stop once everything moved off-campus due to the pandemic. I think it was a mature decision, and I fully supported it, but I do wish that I had been able to figure out a way to help her through what she was experiencing. That is something on which I am still reflecting. I’m sure she is too (but I really hope not because, as I told her, research is NOT the most important thing right now and it will still be there for her when she’s ready to come back to it).
Ultimately, this program is about building trust – between mentors and mentees and within each individual involved. Being a mentor can be uncomfortable, but that was a very good thing for me. The initial discomfort I felt during my first semester as a TA in 2013 (!) has faded and given way to excitement, confidence, and, at times, annoyance (you know: GRADING). But when I stepped into the role of mentor, I suddenly found myself in the position of (potential) career advisor. And having not yet really begun a career, I felt wholly unqualified. I shared that vulnerability with my mentees, and I think that helped them to see me as a human and to trust me as part of their support system.
I certainly grew a lot from my experience, and I encourage everyone who believes that the real reason we are all here is to help students to consider applying to be a URAP Graduate Mentor. You might struggle, but you’ll probably have a great time experimenting with teaching methods and getting to know likeminded students one-on-one. And, by the way, directing undergraduate research can be immensely helpful on the job market.
Teresa Greppi just completed her PhD in Spanish with a Graduate Minor in Gender and Women’s Studies and a Graduate Certificate in Translation Studies. She completed her Graduate Mentorship Certificate through the URAP Grad Mentor Program during the 2019-2020 AY. She is still figuring out her next steps, but in the meantime/quarantine, she is probably reading something, binge-watching/listening to something, doing some sort of yoga-related workout, and definitely snuggling her adorable rescue dog while enjoying (most) of those activities.