With help of mentors, students find new paths to graduate school

April 21, 2008

Human biology major Justin Jefferson snaps on a pair of bright blue rubber gloves as he prepares to give an informal tour to a recent visitor at a University of Texas at Austin animal behavior research laboratory. The 20-year-old sophomore moves with ease from room to room—one minute inspecting small vials of bloodless brain tissue pulled from a freezer, and the next stroking a large, white rat in his hands—all the while explaining how he helps graduate students and faculty with their research at least 12 hours a week.

"We do many things in our lab, but our main goal is to look at gene expression in rats, and study reproduction and puberty of the rats, mainly at the molecular level," says Jefferson, who an hour earlier was carefully measuring cellular and molecular changes in brain samples at another lab across campus.

Intern Justin Jefferson with his mentor Deena Walker
As part of a research study on reproduction in rats, human biology major Justin Jefferson (right) collects cells for graduate student Deena Walker to observe under the microscope at an animal behavior research laboratory on campus. Walker was Jefferson's mentor last fall when he was enrolled in the IE Pre-Graduate School Internship Program. Photo: Christina Murrey.

Anyone who talks to this confident, young scientist would find it hard to believe that he went to a high school that offered few science classes, or that he felt overwhelmed by his first year at college.

"I always felt a step behind," says Jefferson, the oldest of four Latino children who grew up in the housing projects of east San Antonio.

The first person in his family to attend college, Jefferson says everything changed for him last fall when he discovered and enrolled in the university's Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Graduate School Internship, where students are encouraged to find their passions and interests, explore graduate school opportunities and learn how to think about ways to use their knowledge to make a difference.

"When I joined the program, it gave me a sense of community," the tall, dark-haired Jefferson says, noting that unlike several of his peers who had parents who were doctors or other professionals, he didn't have anyone he could turn to for academic advice. "Being in this lab, I feel like I belong here," he says.

Designed to give undergraduates a taste of what graduate school is really like, the one-semester IE internship program provides students or "interns" opportunities and credit hours to explore academic and life interests with the guidance of a mentoring faculty adviser or graduate student in their disciplines.

As an intern, Jefferson paired up with 28-year-old mentor Deena Walker who could relate to Jefferson because she also struggled initially with her undergraduate courses after attending a rural Nebraska high school with few resources for studying science. During the internship, Jefferson and Walker met twice a week for three hours—one day talking about a scientific paper so he could start to learn the scientific process of an experiment, and the other talking about lab techniques that he would learn.

"I also learned how to build networks and relationships with professors and graduate and undergraduate students. Now, I'm up to par and can compete with anyone," Jefferson says with obvious self-assurance.

Walker, a second-year graduate student in the Institute for Neuroscience in the College of Natural Sciences, agrees.

"You can see the building of confidence in him," Walker says. "I don't think that would have happened without the IE program. I don't think he would have even gotten into a lab, because I don't think he knew what to do or who to contact."

By allowing him to shadow her in class and at the lab, by answering his multitude of questions and by introducing him to other graduate students, Walker has helped Jefferson realize he has what it takes to be competitive in graduate school.

Richard Cherwitz, Johanna Hartelius and Ruby Morua Olmanson meet with interns
IE Consortium founder Dr. Richard Cherwitz (second from right) and IE Pre-Graduate Internship Director Johanna Hartelius (third from left) and Assistant Director Ruby Morúa Olmanson (fourth from left) discuss and demystify the culture surrounding graduate school with students. At this recent meeting, all 93 spring interns and their mentors were invited to attend. Photo: Christina Murrey.

She notes that Jefferson now has a realistic idea of what to expect in graduate school and what the many career options are that he can pursue with an advanced graduate degree.

"Like many people, Justin had never interacted with a doctoral student or academic. Therefore, a Ph.D. didn't seem like a viable option," Walker says. She notes that Jefferson had only interacted with medical doctors so he had role models that he could only associate with a career in medical science.

"Through the IE program," she says, "Justin has been exposed to another possible career in science and now there are more options available to him in this discipline."

This level of engagement between intern and mentor is exactly what Dr. Richard Cherwitz, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies and the Department of Rhetoric and Writing, envisioned when he created the concept of Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) in 1997 while he was an associate dean in the Office of Graduate Studies. IE is now part of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

Cherwitz explains that IE is not a program but a cross-disciplinary approach to education consisting of nearly a dozen initiatives, including the IE Pre-Graduate School Internship which began in 2003. That same year, IE became a consortium—a collaborative effort of the colleges of Communication, Liberal Arts, Fine Arts, Natural Sciences, Education and Pharmacy, and the schools of Information, Engineering, Law, Public Affairs and Social Work.

The term "intellectual entrepreneurship" is based on the idea that intellect is not limited to the academy and entrepreneurship is not restricted to business.

"Ultimately what IE tries to do—whether it's this particular internship program or others—is to change the metaphor and model of higher education from what I call 'apprenticeship-certification-entitlement' to one of 'discovery-ownership-accountability,'" Cherwitz says. "The primary mission of IE is to educate students to be citizen-scholars—individuals who creatively use their intellectual capital as a lever for social good."

Cherwitz emphasizes that intellectual entrepreneurship, as a philosophy of education, is about how to create spaces for people to discover their personal passions and how to connect those passions with the academic and intellectual resources needed to accomplish their professional objectives.

The IE pre-grad internship gives students an "academic space" just by giving them the opportunity to discover and discuss their aspirations and explore the value of academic disciplines and the culture of graduate study, he says.

"We're teaching them to be anthropologists of their lives and their academic disciplines," he says.

What Is a Citizen-Scholar?

"The primary mission of IE is to educate students to be citizen-scholars—individuals who creatively use their intellectual capital as a lever for social good."

—Dr. Richard Cherwitz, IE Consortium founder

Cherwitz says interns are encouraged to look across traditional disciplines when exploring fields of study to pursue in graduate school. For example, the questions that interest an undergraduate psychology major might best be answered not by becoming a graduate student in psychology, but by earning an advanced degree in communication or in human ecology. Or if there's an interest in policy or legal issues, a student might look for answers in public affairs or law schools.

Students who want to enroll in the pre-grad internship—which Cherwitz describes as one of the "crown jewels" of the IE Consortium—learn quickly to embrace the idea of entrepreneurship.

For example, students are not assigned mentors but must find their own. Often students ask a former teaching assistant or assistant instructor to serve as mentors.

"Grad school is all about personal initiative and you've got to figure out how to find people. They're not going to knock on your door," Cherwitz says. "You need to network because that's the name of the game in graduate school."

"The pairing of interns and mentors is an organic process. We've resisted a centralized format because the nature and philosophy of intellectual entrepreneurship is more of a discovery process," says Johanna Hartelius, director of the program and a former mentor who graduates this spring with a Ph.D. in communication studies. "There has to be the entrepreneurial initiative to pursue this."

Students, primarily juniors and seniors, direct their own internship experiences. Interns consult with mentors to devise a list of goals and projects they would like to accomplish in a semester. During this time, students learn about the unique aspects of graduate study that make it distinct from their undergraduate experience, such as writing for scholarly audiences, participating in seminars and publishing articles in professional journals.

Some students take on independent research projects with their mentors while exploring the world of graduate studies. For example, biology senior and intern Elizabeth Siegel is conducting a research study with mentor and Ph.D. candidate Luis Bonachea on the mating choices of the sailfin molly—a species of fish commonly found in Texas waters—when exposed to various levels of risk from predators.

Mentor Luis Bonachea and intern Elizabeth Siegel
Luis Bonachea (left), a graduate student in ecology, evolution and behavior, and Elizabeth Siegel, an undergraduate in the College of Natural Sciences, collect fish at Brackenridge Field Lab for an experiment about how the presence of predators affects the choice of mates. Photo: Marsha Miller.

Unlike typical independent research classes, however, this one also focuses on aspects of how to get into graduate school and what graduate school is like.

"It's going to make students more competitive if they really have a good understanding of how the process of getting into graduate school works," says Bonachea, noting that the internship also permits graduate students to acquire effective mentoring habits, making them more marketable as future professors and professionals.

"I like being able to talk to both the professors and the graduate students for advice," says Siegel, 22, who will go to graduate school after she teaches science at a public school for a year. "They gave me some really good advice on things to look for when you're applying to graduate school as well as how to select the right kind of graduate program for yourself."

"So much of college education is mechanical," says Hartelius. "You take classes, you get grades. But in this internship, students are the driving force—their own motives and commitments are the engine. It's the kind of self-directed experience that many students really haven't had before."

More than 200 students have participated in the IE pre-grad program since its inception in 2003. Each year, the numbers of interns and mentors increase dramatically. Initially, the program averaged about 20 interns a semester. This spring, 93 interns representing every school or college enrolled as interns.

Ruby Morúa Olmanson, a graduate student studying bilingual/bicultural education who will take over as the new director of the IE internship in the fall, says the unintended consequence of the internship program has been to attract first-generation students or underrepresented students of color. This spring, 53 percent of the interns are from these two important populations, says Olmanson, the 10th and youngest child of Mexican immigrants who has mentored three Latinas from the Rio Grande Valley.

"One of the exciting things about this IE program is that it helps demystify graduate education for students who are first generation and come from underrepresented backgrounds in the academy," says Dr. Gregory Vincent, the university's vice president for diversity and community engagement, whose portfolio includes the IE Consortium and its programs.

"All of the research and practice tells us that mentoring is one of the ways for these students to successfully pursue a graduate or professional degree. The university is committed to offering this innovative learning program to more of its students and is seeking to raise $50 million in private support for the IE Consortium during the upcoming capital campaign."

In addition to the Pre-Graduate School Internship, other IE initiatives include the project in Interpreting the Texas Past (ITP), the Bryce Jordan Arts Entrepreneurship Incubator, the IE Oral History and Diversity project, including a Plan II Oral History, Identity and Diversity class, Community Action Seminars, a proposed IE Mentorship Course, the IE/St. Edward's University McNair Scholars Program, the IE Dissertation List-Serve/Resources and the Job/Career Resources for graduate students.

Interns are encouraged to have candid conversions with mentors about the realities of graduate school
The internship program hosts four meetings a semester for interns to interact with graduate students, faculty and other undergraduates. At one of these meetings, interns are encouraged to have candid conversions with mentors about the realities of graduate school. Other meetings focus on introductions, discussions with faculty members about their work and academia, and final reflections of the internship experience. Photo: Christina Murrey.

Ana Lucia Hurtado, a university graduate and now a law student at Harvard Law School, is a prime illustration of how the internship program works for minority and first-generation students.

Hurtado and her family emigrated from Peru when she was four. The youngest of three daughters, she thought she would follow her sisters' path and attend medical school, but she said she felt something was missing.

Hurtado, who has a five-year-old son, said she had always thought about going to law school but dismissed it because of negative stereotypes about lawyers. However, after enrolling in the IE internship, she decided to give legal studies a try and interned at the university law school's Children's Rights Clinic, where she says she finally had a "eureka moment." She said her supervising attorneys, who were also mothers with young children, changed her negative perception of lawyers by showing her how she could help people in need through a legal career, something that was important to Hurtado.

"IE empowers students to make connections between their academic interests and real-world concerns—something especially important to first-generation and underrepresented minority students who want to contribute to their communities," Hurtado says.

Of course, not everyone in the IE internship program goes on to graduate school. About 10 to 15 percent of interns will decide graduate school is not for them, should be postponed or pursued in an academic field other than their first choice. Cherwitz emphasizes that this also reflects the success of the program.

"We're proud of the statistic that some of them decide this is not what they want because that ultimately means we're going to have more motivated people within the system who understand what graduate school is," he says.

However, more than 50 percent of pre-grad interns who received a baccalaureate degree subsequently entered graduate school. Many report they had not seriously contemplated graduate education prior to enrolling in the IE Internship.

In the past few years, interns have been offered admission to such prestigious institutions as the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, the London School of Economics, the California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University and The University of Texas at Austin, among others.

Among those success stories is Veronica Luna, an intern in education two years ago, who said the IE internship process successfully guided her to graduate school, a goal that previously seemed unattainable. Luna recently accepted an offer to study social and cultural studies at UC-Berkeley's Graduate School of Education.

"The internship really helped me focus my academic interest," notes 23-year-old Luna, who says her mentor, a doctoral candidate in education, always gave her thoughtful advice and was part of every step during the graduate school application process for more than a year.

"Most of all what was important was feeling empowered to take ownership over my education and my goals. My mentor was very skilled at giving me the tools and then pushing me to accomplish my goals."

Luna's mentor also provided opportunities for Luna to be successful. Luna was admitted to six of the seven graduate programs where she applied, including four that offered full funding.

The many success stories of the IE pre-grad internship program have given rise to a host of related initiatives and collaborations that will allow more undergraduate and graduate students to take control of their educational experiences.

For example, the Professional Internship Program, started last fall as a pilot program, provides IE pre-grad interns the opportunity to get experience in a profession while receiving dual mentorship from a graduate student in that field of study and a professional in that field.

Attorney, university law graduate and mentor Aurora Martinez Jones with three undergraduate students—Samantha Guerra, Zack Daschofsky and Laura Pereyra
Attorney, university law graduate and mentor Aurora Martinez Jones, third from left, with three undergraduate students—Samantha Guerra, Zack Daschofsky and Laura Pereyra—stand in front of the School of Law. The three students are exploring the field of law by working at Jones' law office in Austin as part of a new pilot program that extends opportunities to pre-grad interns. Photo courtesy Martinez Jones Law Firm.

The first participant in the program is attorney Aurora Martinez Jones, a former graduate student mentor who graduated from the university's law school in 2007 and is serving this semester as a community mentor in the IE pre-grad internship program. Jones, a solo practitioner in civil law and first generation American, encourages the three pre-grad interns in her Austin office to choose areas of the law they want to explore such as immigration, real estate, personal injury, and wills and estate planning. Students also attend court hearings, interact with clients and engage in legal research and writing.

Another critical extension of the pre-grad internship program is the proposed IE Mentorship Course for students at the beginning of their college tenure. The course, expected to be offered in 2008-2009, will pair university freshmen and sophomores with graduate student mentors and members of the community.

"This course will help students pick a major with deliberate intent, and select courses across the curriculum that define and connect their intellectual, personal and professional aspirations," Cherwitz says. "Students also will learn how to identify important bridges between academic knowledge and their career goals."

Many academic institutions and educational leaders, as well as the national news media, recognize the success and potential of the IE Consortium and the pre-grad internship.

"The University of Texas' Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program is a model for campuses across the country that seek to integrate civic engagement into arts and humanities education," says Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, whose glowing testimonial is one of dozens on the IE Web site.

Some of the other descriptions of the program by educational leaders across the country include words and phrases such as "revolutionary," "a paradigm-shift in higher education," "a great model for what you can do in doctoral education" and "the most innovative and forward-thinking program for graduate professional development not only in the nation, but maybe in the world."

This is impressive praise for the university's IE model of education and public scholarship, which has been copied at other research institutions, including North Carolina, Illinois and Stanford, says Cherwitz, who received the Council of Graduate Schools Award for Outstanding Contributions to Graduate Education in 2005 and the Lynton award from the New England Resource Center for Higher Education in 2003.

Of the many awards honoring and articles highlighting the IE Consortium, Cherwitz singles out a few as holding special significance. Excelencia, a national foundation honoring departments boosting Latino college enrollment and performance, selected the pre-grad internship as one of the top three programs at graduate-degree granting institutions in 2007.

Also in 2007, Fortune (Small Business) Magazine named IE "one of the nation's best cross-pollination programs."

The internship program has also become part of national discussions about how to transform higher education. That's because of the many positive effects yielded by the program's long-term goals, including increasing faculty diversity by substantially expanding the number of underrepresented minorities who attend and complete graduate school, reducing attrition rates and the time to obtain a degree through more informed student decision making, and providing valuable professional development for graduate students who assist in creating connections between undergraduate and graduate education.

On campus, support for the program continues to grow as more faculty supervisors and graduate student mentors partner with undergraduate interns in more than 50 academic disciplines representing every one of the university's colleges and schools.

"The IE program is a superb fit with our academic goals related to defining, linking and refining our students' intellectual and cultural development," says Dr. Barbara White, dean of the School of Social Work. "Students who have participated have been extremely complimentary of the sense of self and growth this program promotes in conjunction with their preparation for professional service."

Master's candidate Mayra Hernandez is one such student. Along the path of learning about ways to use a graduate degree outside of academe, she says she experienced tremendous personal and professional growth.

"Taking part in the IE Pre-Grad Internship really helped me define who I am, what I want in the future, and discover what it means to be a successful, educated and professional individual," says Hernandez, who now is enrolled in the university's social work graduate program and specializes in domestic violence issues, particularly in the Latino community.

The internship program also spurred radio-television-film major Shenise Sampson's interest in graduate school. An African American student who was a pre-grad intern in the program last fall, Sampson is now studying for the graduate school entrance exam and writing personal statements for graduate school applications.

"My mentor has been very valuable for me," says Sampson. "Because she is African American and has been through the undergraduate process, I could relate more to her. If my mentor hadn't come to me and said 'You have promise for going to graduate school' then I probably wouldn't have considered going. The internship was a chance for me to learn that graduate school was an option for me."

"Only good things have come out of the IE program," says Jefferson, who now includes graduate school as one of his many options. "I have landed a position in a lab, obtained more insight on graduate school, and I am about to publish an article as the lead author. I can now lay the foundation for my younger siblings, and also share my insights on college with them."

By Laura Castro

Banner illustration: Guy Kingsbery

For more information, contact: By Laura Castro
director of media relations, School of Law, 512-825-9525 (cell)