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Understanding Behavior: From Neurons to Societies

Campus Voices: To Reach Potential, Students Need a Personal Touch

October 3, 2017

It’s not easy to be a college student these days.

Rising tuition has made obtaining a degree feel like more of a dream than reality for many students. Yet, now more than ever, a college degree is a prerequisite for even entry-level jobs — the bachelor’s is the new baseline.

Here in California, many students face another challenge: Their parents, many of whom emigrated from Mexico, never went to college. These students might not have anyone in their family who can guide them through the higher education maze, and once ensconced on campus, that sense of isolation can brew doubts about their future prospects.

As a faculty member at UC Merced, where more than half of our students are the first in their families to attend college, I have often seen students struggle as they reach these turning points.

For several, I was able to step in and make a difference.

Faculty members teach classes, but also conduct research, which by the way is time-consuming work. So, we often get assistance from the students. It’s a win-win situation — our research moves from idea to manuscript more quickly, and the students gain valuable experience.

In the U.S., most students in this role are graduate students. They are hired by professors for their research potential, after earning their degrees at other schools. UC Merced is somewhat different, in that it offers research opportunities to undergraduate students. For these students — living for the first time away from home — the experience they gain and the connections that they make through research can truly be life-changing.

For example, I had two precocious students in a statistics class I taught — we’ll call them JG and TC — who stopped by for a chat in office hours. They were thinking about graduate school. As I do with any student who’s thinking of grad school, I first told them that the process was competitive. Instead of backing off, they pulled their chairs up closer — this told me they were game, and so was I.

“With all things being the same,” I said, “what’s going to make a difference is research experience on your resume.”

“A lab,” they said, eyes wide with images of goggles and white coats.

“Not exactly,” I went on. They looked befuddled. “For the research that I’m doing, you’ll be working on your own.”