I recently had an email exchange with Kraig Adler, a behaviorist and herpetologist at Cornell. Kraig was one of the faculty members that I got to know best as an undergraduate. In fact, he really put more into undergraduate mentorship outside of the classroom than almost any faculty member I can think of. He was the advisor for the Cornell Herpetological Society, a student-run club that hosted speakers, went ‘herping’ (looking for reptiles and amphibians), and even took overnight field trips to important zoos and collections throughout the eastern part of the country. Kraig sent me a recent article about the CHS, which got me to thinking about some of the important things that go into having a successful time as an undergraduate, one of them being finding a home on campus.
I was pretty fortunate to get involved in research early in my career, starting with some work at the Lab of Ornithology with Charlie Walcott and with Katy and Maurice Tauber in Entomology. These were great experiences, giving me real research projects to get excited about and important one-on-one time with faculty mentors. The CHS provided a different sort of home- not only did we get an incredibly helpful and supportive mentor in Kraig, but also a peer group of motivated students to share in the journey.
When I moved to Berkeley, I quickly saw the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology provided a similar kind of home for undergraduates. Hooked by classes such as Natural History of the Vertebrates, students sought other upper division courses taught by museum curators, and many became regulars at the museum Wednesday seminars. Hanging around got them work study positions or other research opportunities, and as a result, the MVZ became their home-base at UC Berkeley.
A home such as CHS or MVZ gives one a set of familiar faces to seek out on the first day of class. You get study partners, friends, and confidants– these are all important things to make it through the hard times in college. None of these advantages are unique to academic “homes” such as I’ve been talking about; finding any group of folks with shared interest is important for creating a support network for yourself. There’s something a little more to the academic home to which I’m referring, in that these promote interacting with faculty and grad students. This seems important for building confidence and demystifying the academic world a bit. Graduate school is not for everyone, and getting to know people who have/are going through that is really key information for making that decision.
While I’ve met a lot of great undergraduates at Davis, including some who have worked in our lab, I haven’t seen something akin to the CHS or MVZ here. Maybe it’s out there, but I haven’t encountered it yet.