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Perspectives: When Minority Students Take Ownership of Their Education, Expect Great Things

Universities often confine their knowledge within classroom walls, keeping it detached from the real world that awaits students. So, after many semesters of sitting, listening and testing, graduates often don’t have a clue about what is possible — or how all that knowledge they’ve acquired will help them fulfill their dreams and aspirations. This educational shortcoming is especially significant for under-represented minority and first-generation students, individuals who desire to put their knowledge to work by making connections between academe and society.

Some argue that internships and career counseling bridge the gap, but these often come too late in the curriculum and are often viewed as being non-academic and secondary.

Why should education be limited to textbooks and lectures? Why must experiential learning and career contemplation be viewed as less intellectual than academic knowledge?

Fortunately, I had a unique opportunity to experience something different. Through the University of Texas at Austin’s Intellectual Entrepreneurship internship, I was given the rare chance to own my education. I discovered how to leverage knowledge for social good — in essence, I learned how to be a “citizen-scholar.” I share my experience in the hope that changes will eventually be made in undergraduate education, resulting in more opportunities like mine.

When I was four years old, my family left our home country of Perú to escape the chaos caused by the Shining Path Maoist guerrillas. Although it was a painful sacrifice, my parents wanted their three daughters to succeed, so they brought us to this “land of opportunity.”
I studied hard in school, believing this would ultimately secure a life of fulfillment. But at the end of high school, I grew nervous about finding a career and began exploring engineering and medicine via structured outreach programs at Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Baylor University and my magnet school’s medical rotations classes. But I remained unconvinced and, while at Duke University, I retreated into a state of despair, worrying I would never find my vocation. I probably would have ultimately entered the medical profession like my sisters had I not confronted the greatest challenge of my life: becoming a mother.

I began exploring the possibility of a career in law and ended up transferring to the University of Texas. There, I stumbled upon the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Graduate School Internship, part of UT’s nationally acclaimed intercollegial IE Consortium. A largely self-directed internship, this class was unlike any other I had experienced. Rather than being delivered in the typical didactic fashion, where knowledge is spoon-fed to students, the internship encouraged me to think like an intellectual entrepreneur — to study myself, my knowledge and the career I envisioned.

With a faculty supervisor and a graduate student mentor, the internship allowed me an insider’s look at law. I interned at the law school’s Children’s Rights Clinic, which was unarguably the most valuable educational experience of my college tenure. For the first time, I asked questions for which I genuinely sought answers. I directed my course of study, and I collaborated with my supervisors to create the most enriching experience possible.

This entrepreneurial exercise dispelled many myths I held about the legal profession, including showing me that being a good lawyer and a good mother were not mutually exclusive. By bringing together in one class my personal, academic and professional interests, the internship helped me discover and own my education.

Since enrolling, I learned that nearly 50 percent of IE interns are either first-generation students or under-represented minorities. This statistic is hardly surprising. After all, IE empowers students to make connections between their academic interests and real world concerns — something especially important to those two segments of the student population.

The philosophy of IE shows promise as an approach to increasing the number of persons of color who attend graduate school. In the words of IE’s director and founder, Dr. Rick Cherwitz, “The value of IE as a mechanism for increasing diversity inheres in its capacity to allow students to become entrepreneurs — to discover otherwise unobserved connections between academe and personal and professional commitments. The spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship seems to resonate with and meet a felt need of minority and first-generation students, imploring them to create for themselves a world of vast intellectual and practical possibilities, acquiring the resources needed to bring their visions to fruition. IE changes the metaphor and model of education from one of ‘apprenticeship-certification-entitlement’ to one of ‘discovery-ownership-accountability.’”

I urge university leaders not just to think, but to live, outside the box, recognizing the sometimes stifling nature of undergraduate education. In re-envisioning the undergraduate experience I hope educational administrators will refrain from the typical pattern of responding to calls for reform by periodically shuffling curricular requirements and creating new programs. The structure of education itself must be entirely re-imagined, permitting students opportunities to learn beyond classroom walls. If this is accomplished, all students will benefit enormously. What’s more, there will be profound positive consequences for first-generation and underrepresented minority students, thus enhancing our quest to increase diversity in higher education.

Because of the IE internship, I now face the world with a sense of direction and purpose. Don’t other students deserve the same?

— Ana Lucia Hurtado received her B.A. in Psychology from the University of Texas earlier this year.

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