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A Climate of Curiosity

A Climate of Curiosity

Interview by Nola Peshkin

We sat down with Dean Hollis Robbins of the College of Humanities and Dean Peter Trapa of the College of Science and asked them to share their best advice for incoming college students, some amazing things their colleges have to offer, and what they think makes the U special.

What is a piece of non-academic advice you’d give to a first-year U student?

Dean Trapa: I think one of the most important things about the college experience is that you learn almost more from your peers than you do in the classroom from the professors. Whether you engage informally through student groups and clubs, or through study groups, there’s such great opportunities to learn from your peers. You also learn a lot about yourself from interacting with others who are different from you.

Dean Robbins: Curiosity, I think, is an underrated attribute to bring to college because it supports academic pursuit more than anything else. One of the things I like to tell students is don’t be afraid to say what you don’t know, and what you’re curious about. And don’t ever make fun of anyone for not knowing something or for being curious! We want to support a climate of curiosity. Ask all sorts of questions, crazy questions, interesting questions, and bring all your curiosity to the classroom.

Dean Trapa: Yes! I think college is the period of time in one’s life where you have the greatest intellectual expansion, and the only way to realize that expansion is through curiosity.

Dean Robbins: And to add to what you said about learning from peers, when students in class have the same questions and curiosities but come from different walks of life, all of a sudden, these students have something in common that’s not about themselves, but about something that they both are interested and want to find an answer to. It’s really glorious to see that connection and learning from peers happen!

Dean Trapa: It’s also important for students to understand that there is such a thing as productive struggle! As a student, embrace that there are going to be times where you’re going to struggle with ideas or situations, and that that’s part of intellectual growth and development.

How do you think students could best use the summer before they come to college to prepare for the experience?

Dean Robbins: I would say, look up some of the professors and readings from the courses you’re going to take. I mean, you could be surprised the first day of class, and that’s always fine too. But prepare yourself for an adventure. You know, pack for the adventure, get into the mindset of an adventure, and realize that you’re going to meet new people and have new experiences. Maybe read a book from a new author, watch some 1930s French cinema… just do something outside of your usual run of events!

Dean Trapa: Yeah, I think it’s important to celebrate this milestone that students have just completed and not lose sight that this is the beginning of a new chapter. So, take some time to celebrate the accomplishment but then, as Hollis was saying, prepare for the next step.

What can students look forward to from each of your colleges during their first year at the U?

Dean Robbins: We’re really excited about our new Great Books/Great Science Books sequence. So, in the fall semester, students have the opportunity to take Great Books, which is a team-taught course where one seasoned faculty member from each of our academic departments (linguistics, world languages, writing, English, philosophy, history, and communications) picks a great book and will lecture on it with all the other faculty members present. This way students can learn from all the departments, discuss the books in small groups, and watch all the faculty members learn from each other. Then, in the spring semester, we are rolling out a brand- new course called Great Science Books. It’s the same format, but with science books! We are trying to welcome first-year students into the family of the whole of humanities and give them an opportunity to see the breadth and depth of what we offer. We also want them to see that philosophers ask different questions than historians, who ask different questions than English scholars, and so on.

Dean Trapa: In the College of Science, every first-year student has the opportunity to access undergraduate research, and there’s really no other university in the country that offers that! This is through our Student Research Initiative (SRI). This opportunity is for everybody – you don’t need any prior research experience and we scholarship students for the whole thing, so there’s no financial hurdles. We’re trying to remove the barriers to access these transformational experiences, and it’s something that I encourage every student in the college to get involved in. We want every student to picture themselves as a scientist. If your parents are professors or doctors, that’s very easy. But if you’re a first-generation student or you’re from an underrepresented group in STEM, you might not ever have pictured yourself as a scientist or know how to navigate complex academic networks to find these undergraduate research opportunities. We have good data that tells us once you’re in a cohort program like this you get engaged with your discipline in ways that lead to higher success rates, faster times to graduation, and better job placement.

Dean Robbins: And there are ways for students to engage with the offerings of both of our colleges to develop a really holistic academic background. We want to emphasize that students don’t necessarily have to make hard choices early on about their career path.

What, in your opinion, makes the U special?

Dean Robbins: I think the longstanding commitment to academic excellence and achievement. One of the things that drew me here was the U’s history in computer imaging and what it meant for people thinking about presenting things in new ways that haven’t been done before. As writers we do that in words, some people do it in computer code… I know that’s a goofy answer, but it’s true. Imagining in new ways like that is characteristic of the University of Utah.

Dean Trapa: That’s a very modernist idea on the convergence of imagination and reality! I think the U is special because of this tremendous learning environment and the tremendous focus on academic excellence, of course. But you get that coupled with the fact that this university is a great return on investment. We have the lowest tuition among our peers, and we have excellent job placement for our students. So, you can come here, expand your intellectual horizons, and end up placed on a rewarding career trajectory. It’s such a great value!