Seek an education beyond the classroom

Laura Pereyra

Editor’s note: A version of this column ran in the Austin American-Statesman on Friday, Jan. 18.

UT’s Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium is a game-changing initiative that pairs undergraduates with both graduate students and real-world internship opportunities. Its aim is to guide students to self-discovery, ownership and accountability over their education and thereby maximize their college experiences and tuition dollars.

With the cost of higher education rising and the public demanding greater efficiency, note that the institutional expenditure per student for UT’s IE initiative is less than $150.00 — an incredible bargain. How many other educational programs can boast that?

“In the end, flexibility and a healthy dollop of optimism will be required of this new crop of college-degree holders, whose aspirations may outstrip opportunities,” wrote Pamela Newkirk, a professor at New York University, in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. But are those aspirations really outstripping the opportunities? Is there a lack of optimism, or might it actually be that students are finding non-traditional avenues to create those opportunities for themselves?

When UT’s Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium was formed, the program aimed to help students get an interdisciplinary education. Quickly thereafter, it evolved into a means of empowering students to make the most of their college experiences by exposing them to graduate work and other fields of work outside their area of study. The Consortium provides students a forum in which they can design personal learning experiences that would meld their passions to their academic work.

One of the Consortium’s programs, the pre-graduate internship, pairs students with graduate student mentors, alongside whom they can pursue internships or academic research. The program has exposed first-generation students to graduate education and academic research opportunities many of them did not know existed previously. Approximately 50 to 60 percent of the Consortium’s 300-plus pre-graduate interns each year are minorities or students who are the first in their families to attend college.

The Intellectual Entrepreneurship program helps first-generation students at UT maximize their college experiences and consider attending graduate school. Civil engineering undergraduate Sonia Trujillo explained, “As a first-generation student attending college, sometimes it is overwhelming to even consider this idea.”

Some students find that they want to go to graduate school, but others realize that their passions may not require a graduate degree. Some, like social work undergraduate intern Aida Prazak, say, “By being paired up with mentors who have been through the process, we take advantage of their experience and efficiently minimize our learning curve which increases our intellectual profit margin. This ultimately maximizes our tuition dollars. If it were not for the IE program, I would still be pursuing graduate programs in public policy or law, when that really is not where my heart is. I was able to discover this in one semester as opposed to several years — the ultimate in efficiency.”

“It’s about owning and being accountable for their education,” said Richard Cherwitz, founder of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium and professor in the departments of communication studies and rhetoric and writing. He emphasizes that education should be about discovering who you are.

Pereyra is a member of the UT class of 2010 and is a communications associate for NerdScholar.