By Richard J. Alley
It sounds like a pitch for a new reality show: a random group of college students occupying one house for a year, getting to know each other and engaging in their community. But this ensemble has much more purpose, separating their situation from similar roommate situations on college campuses across the country.
This is The Ruka, a team of six like-minded seniors living together and participating in programs and lifestyles to better their community, the environment and themselves. Last year, these women became a group with positive intentions that would leave them with the necessary resources to present in last spring’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Symposium, or URCAS.
“The symposium is an opportunity for students to tell the campus community what they’ve been doing, either in or outside the classroom,” says Dr. Ann Viano, the J. Lester Crain Professor of Physics and chair of the URCAS planning committee.
Throughout campus on a crisp, spring day in April, 180 students held forth on disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, fine arts and natural sciences. In addition, some student presentations dealt with working within the community to improve it and gain a better understanding of the human condition. As they have been since 1996, presentations were given both visually and orally.
In Blount Auditorium, housemates Sarah Dockery, Catherine Appleton, Jami King, Shelby Kramer, Leigh DeVries and Maggie Rector stood up in front of an audience of peers and mentors to describe The Ruka experiment, its outcome and long-term implications. Their presentation was one of several highlighting the Rhodes Fellowship program.
The six seniors, under the guidance of Dr. Bernadette McNary-Zak, the R.A. Webb Professor of Religious Studies, came together to form an intentional community and social experiment meant to engage with each other and sustain a household, community and planet at large. Ruka, in the language of Chile’s Mapuche people, means “home.” The household worked within the Binghamton neighborhood on the outskirts of the Rhodes campus, and within Caritas Village, a community center and coffee shop in the area.
From the group’s blog: “We commit to loving one another through an intentional dedication to a lifestyle of probing and encouraging conversations and the showcasing of our strengths and challenging our weaknesses to create more loving and servant-hearted individuals.”
Through a series of photos and short speeches, the women talked of working together as a team to accomplish goals of scheduling and environmental consciousness within the house, and mentoring and tutoring within the community. These are life skills and experiences they will carry throughout their lives, hands-on lessons that aren’t meant to be left behind like a used textbook or worn-through backpack. The knowledge has real-world applications, both in professional and personal plans.
“We all had a lot of self-reflection throughout the year,” Dockery, who graduated with a bridge major in Economics and International Studies, recently said by telephone from her family’s home in Dallas as she prepared to leave for a year of teaching in Honduras. “We were all surprised at how much it did impact us. I think one of the biggest things was learning how to really work with and relate to people on a deeper level than I had been used to.”
The Ruka was not the only URCAS session that morning. Other students came together to discuss sports, beer, health and photography, subjects that were the sum total of months of serious research, work, focus and some travel.
Catherine Bordelon ’12, who worked as an intern for Memphis’ Ghost River Brewing company, described her experiments with quality control for the microbrewery. Andy McGeoch ’12, through a Buckman Scholarship, traveled to Argentina to study its culture’s willingness to overlook a person’s or culture’s flaws and seek inherent greatness instead. McGeoch illustrated his study with the tempestuous life of soccer legend Diego Maradona, pibe de oro, “the golden child.”
Because of her work with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital on subtypes and spatial localization of medulloblastomas, the most common form of childhood brain cancer, Amber Owens ’11 was offered a position with the hospital this year. Instead, she opted to go to dental school.
“There is this progression, and that’s one of the things we really hoped to achieve with fellowships, to let students have these experiences,” director of fellowships Scott Garner says. He adds that sometimes students find that their fields of research aren’t for them, and that this is all part of the process. “A student may get involved with a nonprofit agency, for example, and say, ‘No, this is not something I ever want to do again,’ so it’s important for them to learn that as well.”
Since 2002, Dr. Matt Krasin with the Radiation Oncology division of the Department of Radiological Sciences at St. Jude, has been working with students in the Rhodes St. Jude Summer Plus Fellowship program, which places students in the hospital’s professional laboratories for a period of two summers plus the intervening academic year. The students generally present their work experience as part of URCAS. Dr. Krasin is working with Kira Reich ’14 for the upcoming year and finds the program extraordinarily beneficial for all parties as the institutions continue to work closely together. He now counts past students as colleagues.
“URCAS is a great program. It’s well done,” Dr. Krasin says. “The students do work that other people in academics at a higher level have to learn how to do, so it’s nice that they’re getting to do this when they’re going into their junior or senior year. It’s a really good learning experience, and the amount of effort that the Rhodes faculty put into it is really clear; they support it well.”
In Frazier Jelke A, sophomore Bert Geyer ’13 talked of design and geology, and his task of how best to present Rhodes’ Vanuxem geology collection. The specimens in the collection were gathered by Lardner Vanuxem, a prominent 19th-century geologist, and acquired by the college shortly after his death in 1848 when the school, then called Stewart College, was located in Clarksville, TN.
A studio art major, Geyer took an intro to geology class where the professor was looking for an art major to help her with a fellowship to display the collection because of the design aspect it involved. She pitched the idea and Geyer, who plans to go into architecture, caught it. The intro class, he says, gave him “enough knowledge to at least know up from down, and know a little bit about the collection.”
Geyer became much more familiar with the collection as he took it from storage and inventoried it, finding “yellowed newspaper from the 1920s,” and called on inspiration from a trip to the rocks and minerals collection at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in Washington, DC.
The multiple disciplines necessary for the project were just the sort of thing Geyer appreciates. It is, he says, why he chose a liberal arts college in the first place. The idea is to take lessons learned in the classroom out of the classroom to better understand the real-world applications and impact. Dr. Jennifer Houghton of the Biology Department worked with Geyer throughout the project.
“From start to finish she supported me in letting me do what I wanted to do,” he says. The exhibit Geyer designed and built is expected to be on display soon in one of Frazier Jelke’s main halls bracketing the atrium.
A range of interests and curiosity satisfied is what is so appealing to college students, and it’s an itch that URCAS helps to scratch. Sarah Dockery did not limit herself to her work within The Ruka and Caritas Village. She also collaborated with two other students—Manali Kulkarni ’12 and Courtney Martin ’11—to produce a documentary called “Racism in Memphis Schools: The History, Philosophy and Current Events.”
“We loved the project, all three of us had a wonderful time,” she says. “It was really informative and gave us a chance to be a little bit creative.”
In the film for their Human Rights class, the trio interviewed fellow Rhodes students and professors, Memphis Mayor AC Wharton and various community members and leaders on their perceptions of racism in Memphis area schools. Dr. Leigh Johnson of the Department of Philosophy was faculty sponsor.
“We really wanted to make it specific to Memphis because that’s where we were living and we have seen so many issues, especially in poverty and education,” Dockery says. “After we started studying education inequality, racism was a huge issue that kept cropping up and people kept pointing to that and talking about it, so that became the direction we took our documentary.”
On the lighter side, but involving as much research and work, was another documentary titled “Monkey Business,” about the 35th anniversary of the day some monkeys escaped from the Memphis Zoo across the street and took up residence on Burrow Library (now Burrow Hall). The students in Professor Liz Daggett’s Digital Arts class enlisted the help of Bill Short ’71, Rhodes associate director of Library Services, who worked in the library at the time and was an eyewitness, to tell the story.
It was one of 16 short student-made videos presented that day.
Six King Biscuit Blues Fellows from Rhodes’ Mike Curb Institute for Music presented their research at URCAS, along with a live concert in Frazier Jelke. It was a recap of a program in which they participated last fall at the 2010 Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival in Helena, AR, where they discussed and performed blues music.
Though students research throughout the year, some beginning as early as the prior summer, the call for URCAS proposals is in early March.
“Students will submit abstracts, which are reviewed by the committee and then organized into the different sessions,” says Dr. Viano. “Leaning how to present research is important. Summarizing what you’ve done, creating a polished presentation and then standing up in front of an audience and giving it is good experience for anyone. It provides students those skills they’re going to need to perform well in their future careers.” These lessons and experiences will serve these students and graduates throughout their lives, both professional and personal. It is information that will be useful in such areas as the fight against childhood cancer, the construction of buildings, the development of our community’s children, and in other countries to help improve the lives of the less fortunate.