Find Your Learning Sweet Spot with a Faculty Mentor
By Dr. Jennifer Cramer
Program Director, Sociology, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies at American Public University
Engagement is a key factor in student success. Faculty members work to foster engagement in courses by cultivating discussion and motivating students to be curious and thoughtful about applying what they learned in class. What many students might not know is that faculty can use their discipline expertise to help provide students with ideas for finding internships, conference workshops, field schools, or other hands-on, experience-based opportunities that will help them take what they are learning in classes to the next level. These experiences bring a competitive or unique edge to a graduate’s toolkit as they hit the job or graduate school market.
As an undergraduate, I really struggled with the large courses that had over 300 students and the lectures without discussions. For me, it was difficult to make the same kind of connections with faculty that I had been used to in my small high school classrooms. I felt disengaged and frankly, somewhat lost. Unexpectedly, what turned this around for me was that I needed to work. This blessing in disguise led me to a job in a genetics lab on campus. In four years working there, I learned completely new things, including how to use equipment like an autoclave, manage a database, and how to conduct basic research. I met professors I did not have classes with, I went to guest lectures, and I learned some of the ins and outs of life as an academic researcher. The genetics professor took time to meet with me regularly, he encouraged me to consider graduate school, and he kept tabs on what courses I was taking and how they were going.
A couple of years later I took a course on primatology (my now field of expertise). For years I had been intimidated about going to professor office hours. This time, I was so in love with the course, I went to office hours and remember telling the professor I wanted to do what she did. She laughed a bit and then said she would help me get there. She helped me put together a reading list so I could learn more about the field, she helped me apply to a field school in Costa Rica and she helped review my graduate school applications and wrote letters of recommendation for me. She has remained one of my mentors for over a decade. Her willingness to be available for students and to share her own passion for her field inspired me in a way that I had literally never been inspired before.
Each time I am in a training or conference session focusing on the importance of faculty engagement, I think about these two professors. The mentorship and attention of these two professors outside of the classroom truly changed my life. Without their guidance of how to take my college experience to the next level, I doubt I would have sought out graduate school or overseas research on my own. Sharing conference, field school, training workshop, and other opportunities with our students helps them get creative with ways they can engage with their discipline and interests in new ways either close to home or far away. Coursework is one part of how we engage in a learning journey but when faculty and students work together we can find other ways to enrich and deepen the experience.
Students, if you meet a faculty member that has knowledge about a particular career path or area of expertise that interests you, don’t hesitate to contact them. Reaching out to us lets us know that you would like mentorship and coaching beyond the specifics of a single course. If you are thinking about graduate school, need help thinking of creative career options that fit your degree path, are unsure if a particular degree and career path is compatible with health issues or caregiver responsibilities, let us know. These are things many of us have firsthand experience from so we know exactly where you are coming from. All faculty members have weekly office hours to provide group or one-on-one coaching through the classroom. During a course, send us a message to set up a meeting. After a course, contact us via mycampus email to set up a meeting. Most of us remember a few key professors that have helped us along the way, and we truly look forward to doing the same for the next wave of scholars.
About the Author
Dr. Jennifer Cramer is a professor of anthropology at American Public University System. She is a biological anthropologist and has worked on research projects in Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Ghana, The Gambia, and Ethiopia. Dr. Cramer enjoys teaching anthropology in a way that highlights how anthropology fits into daily life. She is passionate about not only anthropology but exploring the world and she greatly enjoys helping students, especially first-generation and first-year students, learn about finding a program and career they are passionate about pursuing.