Preparing Change Makers: Undergraduate Excellence

Remarks from DEVAR's Undergraduate Excellence Panel

VPDUE Ching participated in an online panel hosted by Development and Alumni Relations as part of their Preparing Change Makers series. The panel was moderated by VC-Student Affairs Pablo Reguerìn and included including Rao Unnava, Dean of the Graduate School of Management; Joanna Regulska, Vice and Dean of Global Affairs; and Kevin Blue, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics. Here we present VPDUE Ching’s remarks and Q&A.

What makes you the most excited about undergraduate excellence at UC Davis?

I could talk for a long time about undergraduate excellence on this campus. But, related to the topic of this event, I’ll say that one of the things that not only excites but routinely impresses me is that, yes, our undergraduates want to be change makers, they want to change the world. But a lot of them don’t want to wait until they graduate to do it. They don’t consider their undergraduate years as just some kind of training ground or frontloading exercise, where then, after 4-5 years, they get a piece of paper, and a fancy hat with a tassel, that says, okay, now you can go out and change the world. No. They want to start day 1 on campus, as soon as they walk in the door. So we have to think about what kinds of opportunities are we giving them to do that.

Research, Discoveries, Innovation

As a research university, one way we change the world is through our research, our discoveries, the ways we build knowledge and innovation. And at UC Davis, undergraduates can get involved in that. We have a First-Year-Seminars program called CUREs (Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences) that offers brand-new freshmen and transfer students the opportunity to work in a small class with a faculty member on their research area. Also, our Undergraduate Research Center places students in immersive research relationships with faculty mentors in laboratories, field sites, research groups, and summer research experiences. Finally, our University Honors Program students, for their fourth-year capstone experience, conduct independent research on a project of their choosing under the direction of a faculty mentor. So we are focusing on undergraduate participation in research in many ways, but students are clamoring for this. Our programs are dramatically oversubscribed, and we could always do MORE, if we had the capacity to do it.

Direct Impact through Immediate Engagement

Another way we change the world, though, is through our direct impact, through immediate and concrete engagements with communities, regions, and private and civic institutions. I’m glad Quarter @ Aggie Square was mentioned earlier, because that is well on its way to being a crown jewel in the university’s regional impact. Basically, this program, students enroll in a special quarter wherein all their courses are coordinated and themed to be about socially relevant topics (like transformative justice in education, immigration, biomedical technology, multi-lingualism), and then they participate in topically-related internships with either the partner tenant organizations at Aggie Square, on the medical center campus, or in the surrounding community of Sacramento, Oak Park, etc. So that’s in the early stages, but we’re very excited about it. And, also in terms of impact and engagement, then we also have a part of our Honors program where, in their 3rd year, students volunteer or intern with an eye toward some kind of service experience related to their overall program of study.

Barriers to Opportunities and Experiences

So yes, our students want to change the world. The thing about world-changing, though, is that it is time-consuming. And, for some of our students anyway, time is money. The hours they might spend in an internship or a research lab experience are hours they aren’t spending working and getting paid. Unless they have some kind of fellowship that covers them, but right now those are few and far between. So we have a situation in which there are financial barriers to these opportunities and experiences for some students. But if we had more funds available for sponsoring students in these types of activities, that would be world-changing -- for them in particular, but also for the rest of us, as we watch and ultimately benefit from what these amazing students can do, and what they will become.


How can we continue providing an impactful, hands-on experiences for our students during the pandemic?

There are several interesting answers to this question from my perspective. One is that there are ways in which having an impactful experience is possible; in some ways in this remote instruction situation that weren’t as possible before. It’s the answer that you totally didn't expect. It’s counterintuitive. One of those things is that students are able to do remote research internships with faculty who are really involved in data science. So it's not that you necessarily need to be in a laboratory in order to have that research experience and you can in fact do it remotely because it's all done via computers anyway. We’ve been able to place a lot of students still with faculty who are doing very data-heavy kinds of work. 

Also our UCDC Washington DC program had to go remote this year. We were kind of worried about it, and as it turns out we have 45 students signed up for winter to do virtual internships with various governmental and Civic organizations in Washington DC and to me that speaks to the question of like well maybe these are students who wouldn't necessarily have been available to fly to DC to pick up and leave your family and your community and your everything else and go live in DC for three months so they're not doing that place-based internship, but they're getting that meaningful professional experience regardless. 

And then finally as far as the hands-on component of that question goes, we actually did something really remarkable this quarter in that we shipped a whole ton of hands-on laboratory materials to students so that they could do guided labs at home in some of their courses. You know, we didn't send dangerous materials through the mail that aren’t allowed. There was a lot of building equipment, art supplies, science lab materials so really, we're developing innovations and ways of doing hands-on learning, even at a distance. 

How can UC Davis help undergraduates find research opportunities in a pandemic? 

Our Undergraduate Research Center actually excels at that. They're doing a lot of that right now. We offer regular workshops for students on how to get involved in research, how to connect with faculty members, how to determine even what type of research you might be interested in. They keep a running list of faculty members who are actively looking or who are available to take students in their labs, whether it's virtual or in one of the labs that is open, We have labs that are scaled-down in terms of their operations on campus but they are open and working, and as we scale up our research lab capacity the undergrads that are involved in research and undergrads that will become involved in research are considered critical research personnel, so they will be able to get into those labs and start to work as well. So I would say if you have a student who is interested in research experience at UC Davis, or if you just want to find out more about it, look up our Undergraduate Research Center.

Coming Back Better than Before

I actually think that, to close on an optimistic note, we are going to come out of this better than we went in. As somebody who studies educational technology and learning in online environments in particular, I get this question a lot where people ask, “Is this pandemic going to ruin universities, In this and now we're just going to do online schooling?” And I think absolutely adamantly NO.  One of the things that we have I think I realized -- all of us in this -- is how much our place-based campus matters, how much we miss being in the same space and interacting meaningfully with one another as part of our learning experience, and so none of that is going to go away. I hope we are smarter, as we come out of this, about how we use our campus spaces and instructional time and that we actually think about having it matter that we are together and that we're learning together and that's meaningful. But I think we can do that, and I think it'll be great.

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