President's Notebook

President's Notebook

My View from South Hill

Posted by Thomas Rochon at 1:52PM   |  1 comment
Independent student research - foundation for a tradition of excellence

The Ithaca College Chemistry Department has more than five hundred graduates, some of whom are today among the most respected leaders in their field. Its faculty care so much about their students that years later they can recount stories about light-hearted moments or intellectual breakthroughs in the lab. The department’s alumni care so much about the faculty, in turn, that they travel to Ithaca years later to give testimony about their mentors.

This tradition of excellence in the Chemistry Department has developed over 50 years. It is marked by such signposts as the over 50,000 cumulative hours of student research undertaken in the lab, and the more than 200 students who have presented their research at regional, national and international conferences. That represents over 40% of all graduates of the department who have had the opportunity to undertake original research and present it at conferences; a rate that is even higher among recent graduates.

Mike Haaf, an associate professor in the department, was recently recognized by Princeton Review as one of the top 300 college professors in any field of study, based on student ratings. He and 299 others (one of the others also from IC!) were chosen from among over 1.8 million post-secondary teachers in the country! Mike is so modest that he deleted the first two emails from Princeton Review telling him he had won this award, assuming them to be spam. They finally had to call to convince him this was a legitimate honor. “I appreciate that the Princeton Review decided to recognize quality teaching,” Mike says. “That is what the faculty in our department live for. This is really a departmental award because we have developed together and over a long period of time the culture of focusing solely on student learning.”

Conversations with our chemistry alumni prove that Professor Haaf is right: quality teaching has a long pedigree here. Grateful alumni of the department have donated five endowed scholarships to be awarded to junior and senior majors. The most recent of these gifts was announced at the department’s 50th anniversary celebration last month. Dr. Marjorie Chelly ’94 is a hand surgeon in Texas whose reconstructive techniques enable people to regain full functionality after accidents. She attributes her success to the opportunity she had as an undergraduate to conduct and present original research; her fund will enable future students to have the same experience. Dr. Chelly named the award for Professor Glenn Vogel, the mentor who created those opportunities for her.

IC chemistry alumni have been successful in many related fields. Gary Kubera '82 is today President and CEO of Canexus, a chemical manufacturing and handling company. He also serves as a director on the Chlorine Chemistry Division of the American Chemistry Council and is director and past chair of the Alliance for Environmental Technology, an international association of chemical manufacturers dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of the pulp and paper industry by fostering adoption of chlorine-free technologies.

Dr. Bill Schwab ’68 is professor of Trauma Surgery and former division chief at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Bill served in the United States Navy for nine years, where he honed his life-saving surgical skills. Once in civilian life, he applied what he had learned in the Navy to develop patient transportation networks and trauma center collaborations that improve the speed and integration of emergency care. He also became a leader in pioneering trauma surgery techniques ranging from brain-tissue oxygenation to X-ray tomography. Through his writings – including being co-author of the definitive textbook on surgical trauma care -- and by traveling around the world to offer lectures and consultations to colleagues, Bill has saved untold numbers of lives by spreading his innovations on a global scale. He points to Professor Heinz Koch as the one who introduced him to research and inspired his future career, and Bill has also created a student research fund in the name of his former professor.

The IC Chemistry Department has a distinctive commitment to undergraduate learning that, over 50 years, leaves a remarkable legacy. I am particularly struck by the way our alumni combine technical expertise, business acumen and commitment to making a better world. That is exactly the kind of big picture thinking we seek to develop at Ithaca College.


Posted by Thomas Rochon at 5:26PM   |  Add a comment
Learning on the IC campus is a 24/7 experience


Well we busted out of class,

Had to get away from those fools.

We learned more from a three minute record, baby

Than we ever learned in school.


I believe, like many people, that Bruce Springsteen is the greatest lyricist of his generation. He can pour more truth into a three minute record than anyone else I know.


This particular verse, however, hurts my educator's heart. Can it be that we sometimes fail so badly to offer what students want and need that they are better served learning from song lyrics than from the teachers that Springsteen calls fools?


When I consider the situation more dispassionately, I realize I am being too sensitive. The classroom is a vital place of learning but it is not and can never be the venue for learning everything necessary to a happy and successful life. I remember listening intently to song lyrics as an adolescent and young adult. Mostly they were just fun, but at times they were also useful in offering answers to the big questions we all grapple with: Who am I? What do I believe in? How should I relate to others? How will I get where I think I am meant to go?


It would be unrealistic to expect these questions to be considered only in one’s formal education. We learn from everyone and everything we encounter in life. Still, one hopes – contrary to the scenario in Springsteen’s song No Surrender – that the classroom will not be irrelevant to the larger project of making our way in the world.


That is where the educational mission of a residential college like Ithaca College comes into play. IC is built upon two communities: one of students who study, eat, sleep, work, and play on campus, and the other of faculty and staff who create a rich learning environment for those students. We are like a small town in many respects, except that every function in our town is planned around the goal of fostering student learning in a 24/7 activity cycle. Student housing assignments are developed in part to foster learning between roommates and among students on the same floor. We offer over 3,000 student jobs on campus every semester, jobs that provide not just a way to earn money but that also generate professional learning opportunities. We have a police force, a health center, a community volunteer center, a chapel, a fitness center, a counseling center, a newspaper, and radio and TV stations, all oriented not just to providing vital services but also to providing opportunities for learning and growth. We offer the infrastructure and guidance that enables students to form or join clubs, sports teams and advisory committees – all of which exist so that students can pursue their interests but that also create opportunities to learn and apply the skills of organization, communication and leadership. 


The classroom and the campus community work hand in hand to create the total IC educational experience. That is why I recently asked our Provost, Dr. Marisa Kelly, to serve as vice president of Student Affairs and Campus Life in addition to her existing duties as vice president of Academic Affairs. Her title will now be Provost and Vice President of Educational Affairs, reflecting the fact that an IC educational experience takes place all over campus. Her objective will be to foster a closer collaboration between student work in the classroom and student engagement across the campus. Our students should be able to draw seamlessly upon all the sources of learning we offer. 


It is valuable for people to learn from three minute records (or their contemporary equivalent). It is important that people learn from the accumulated store of human wisdom and knowledge, as well as from each other and from the experiences of daily life.  The richest student experiences – the ones alumni tell me about all the time – are those that combine a strong commitment to academics with an equally strong commitment to exploring the opportunities provided by co-curricular and residential life. If you bust out of class at IC you will burst into a parallel world of learning opportunities that are available all across our campus.


Posted by Thomas Rochon at 8:40PM   |  Add a comment
IC Students Marked for Success

The 2011-2012 school year comes to an end this Sunday with a commencement at which approximately 1600 students will receive their degrees.  Looking back over the nine months of this academic year, I am reminded that are six thousand stories in the IC student body.  Here are four of them.

Freshman Noreyana Fernando won a 2012 South Asian Journalists Association Student scholarship that provides a summer internship in Washington, D.C.  There are just five of these awards given each year, and the others went to students from Harvard, Brown, UCLA and the British Columbia Institute of Technology.  How did Noreyana come to the attention of the award committee?  During her freshman year Noreyana wrote for the Ithacan (recently named the best weekly college newspaper in the country), reported news on ICTV, and served as assistant news director at our radio station WICB.  "Hands on from day 1" is part of our teaching philosophy, and Noreyana has taken full advantage of that approach.  Others have noticed.

Sophomore Shanshan Mei won the 2012 Ithaca College Business Idea Competition with a portable screen cleaner for laptops and other mobile electronic devices.  The genesis and development of her idea illustrates the ability of successful entrepreneurs to take an everyday moment (“My screen is dusty!”) and turn it into a product idea.  Generally, though, the first iteration of the idea is not the end of the process.  After designing a simple and functional screen wiper, Shanshan learned that a similar product is already manufactured in Japan though it is not yet marketed in the US.  She then realized that she could reach a completely different market segment by incorporating elegant design.  Her goal was to get people attracted first by the look of her screen wiper, and then be struck by how useful it is.  Shanshan continued her business development work since winning the award for her concept.  She has made prototypes of the product, talked with potential manufacturers/suppliers, talked with store owners to get their assessments of how the product would sell, and gotten herself incorporated.   Look for an elegant screen dust remover – to be called the Mei – in your local stores soon!

Junior Adam Bienstock is a former member of the Ithaca College football team who took part in a team initiative to organize a bone marrow registry drive in the spring of 2011.  This involves swabbing saliva to obtain DNA information that will then be stored to help find a good match for someone needing a bone marrow transplant.  It is vital to have as many people as possible in the registry since the odds of a match are 1 in 60,000 for Caucasians and just 1 in one million for members of minority groups.   Over 200 people took part in the football team’s initiative.  Despite the long odds, last fall Adam turned up as a match for a fifty year old man with leukemia.  Adam then underwent a seven hour operation to donate the marrow that saved a life. 

Senior Seth Ecker has received a lot of attention on the IC campus and beyond as three time All American and two time NCAA national champion in wrestling.  He won his second national title this spring in dominant form, with a 8-0 major decision over his opponent in the final.  The rest of the story – less often told – is that Seth has compiled a 3.84 GPA in Finance, his major field within the School of Business.  He is a member of Beta Gamma Sigma, the international honors society in business education, as well as the honors society for Ithaca College as a whole. 

These four students, one from each undergraduate class year at IC, illustrate some of the core commitments and emphases within an IC education.  Noreyana Fernando ’15 shows us how a hands on education accelerates student learning and accomplishment, even for a first year college student.  Shanshan Mei ’14, demonstrates the value of asking how something can be done more effectively, and then carrying through from concept to business plan to product.  Adam Bienstock ‘13 doesn’t even think of his gift of life as a sacrifice, but instead as a natural thing that people do for each other.  And Senior Seth Ecker’s record of athletic and academic accomplishment illustrates the student athlete ideal as well as demonstrating the results of sustained commitment to excellence. 

Every student on the Ithaca College campus is writing their own story.  These four students illustrate the enormous well of talent and commitment that should give us great confidence in the future.

Posted by Thomas Rochon at 11:25AM   |  Add a comment
International students at IC share their thoughts

The transition to college is one of life’s major events. Like the first day of kindergarten and the birth of one’s child, the first few weeks of college are one of those times people tend to remember for the rest of their lives. You encounter new expectations, new freedoms and new friends, all of which add up to a rare opportunity to reinvent yourself. You must also cope with nervousness that your self-reinvention in this new environment might not be successful. What if college is too hard? What if you don’t fit in? 

Now imagine that your first week of college takes place in a foreign country. Not only are you not being served your mother’s cooking, but it is not even your native cuisine. Not only do you have to make new friends, but you must do so in a culture and a language that are not your own. You have an opportunity to reinvent yourself, but to many people your primary identity will remain “that student from another country.”

It was with those thoughts that I had lunch a week or so ago with seven international students who are currently undergraduates at Ithaca College. Isuru, Hugo, Sachiko, Jia, Scott, Desiree, and Riw came to Ithaca respectively from Sri Lanka, Brazil, Japan, China, Australia, Singapore via Australia, and Thailand. Going into the conversation with them I knew one thing for sure: all seven of these students were more intrepid than I was at age 18 when I ventured all of 35 miles from home to go to college!

These international students are incredibly upbeat about their IC experience despite wrestling at times with a natural longing to be back in more familiar environs. I asked them what the most difficult part of adapting to American college life had been. Was it language, food, or the academic expectations of American professors? Was it dealing with cultural stereotypes? Tony told me he wouldn’t mind not being asked again how often he saw kangaroos hopping around Sydney, but the overall answer to my question was unanimous: the hardest part was learning about American popular culture! Sports with unfamiliar rules, popular singers whose work is completely unknown, celebrities whose basis for being famous is hard to discern. TV shows everyone is expected to have watched growing up; aspects of American history that are assumed to be known to all. The hardest part, according to some of my erstwhile informants, is learning to interpret verbal and behavioral cues. When does “See you later” mean the person wants to see you later and when does it simply mean “goodbye?” 

These students were not complaining about the added work of cultural decipherment on top of their regular work as students. On the contrary, they are energized by the challenge of cultural adaptation and discovery. Their breadth of campus involvements is remarkable, even by the high standards of IC students in general. One is a freshman senator in the Student Government Association, one plays basketball, one is active in a student organization that raises awareness about the symptoms of depression.   All affirmed that the best way to be truly known and cared for as an individual – to get beyond the “international student” label – is to become active in something you care about. “You can make really good friends very quickly,” said one of my informants, “but only if you get out there and do something.” 

I have in the past been a non-degree student in university classrooms in France and the Netherlands, and I know how much harder it is to do quality work in another language and with a different set of academic expectations. Far from being daunted by the academic challenges at Ithaca College, though, these international students found classes and course work to be one of the best parts of the experience. “’Our professors get to know us,” one said, “and they expect us to think on our own rather than merely learn what is in the text book.” “We have incredible freedom,” added another. “We are responsible for our own learning, and as a result you get out of it only what you put in.” I asked if that constituted a difficult adjustment from the way they were taught in their home countries, and was told it was a big adjustment but not a difficult one.  “This is why I came to Ithaca College in the first place. Our learning is meaningful; we are not just completing problem sets for the sake of it.” 

I asked what we could be doing better. “Your backgrounds outside of the US enable you to see things that I and others on campus are likely to miss. What do you think should be different?” 

“Make the food spicier – American cuisine is so bland!” said one. Another student reacted in horror: “It is already too spicy – tone it down!” 

With that disagreement on the table, my informants focused on the way we conduct diversity-related programs and conversations on campus. “The tone is often so negative,” one person said. “It seems to be quite defensive.” I noted that given our country’s history with diversity and with particularly with issues of race, these are highly delicate topics. It is important to talk about diversity issues as we grope toward a more just society, but people understandably worry about giving offense and inadvertently causing backward movement.

There was a moment of silence around the table while everyone pondered. One student said quietly “I was never a minority before I came to this country. I was never before called ‘Asian,’ and I am still not sure what that means or who is and is not included in that category. What I do know is that when the conversation is always about the negative aspects of stereotypes and how everybody is really the same, then something is lost. We are different and it is possible to celebrate difference and learn from it without being defensive about it.” 

Our conversation continued on that and other topics for awhile, but these were the words that remained engraved on my heart as we broke up and I headed back to my office. We know as educators that the richness of the campus learning environment is immeasurably increased by having a student body as diverse as possible in every dimension of experience. I had just seen that richness in action. Scott, Riw, Isuru, Sachiko, Jia, Hugo and Desiree: I am glad you feel such great benefit to being part of the Ithaca College learning community. You are certainly giving back to it in full measure!

Posted by Thomas Rochon at 2:57PM   |  Add a comment
A portrait of hands-on learning in community with peers and teachers

“Life is lived in community, not sitting alone in a room in front of a computer screen. An Ithaca College education unfolds through interactions within a residential community of students, faculty and staff. It is authentic to the way a successful and happy life is actually lived.”

I read those words last week on a 3x5 notecard written by an unknown individual who works at IC. I had asked faculty and staff at our January all college meeting to summarize for me the traits that make Ithaca College a distinctive educational community, one that offers special value to students. Before asking them to do this exercise, I outlined in some detail the emerging web-based forms of higher education instruction. For example, MITx will offer course materials organized so that online students can read materials, complete exercises and develop competencies parallel to what one would receive as a regular MIT student. Although MITx does not offer college credit (yet) or lead to a degree, its self-paced navigation through a given topic represents a convenient way to gain information and develop skills. MITx plans for the service to be free.

Online options for higher learning are today in their infancy. It would be short-sighted, though, to believe that the quality and diversity of such offerings will not grow enormously within the next decade. Wait another ten years beyond that and we will likely see development of competency verification systems that are accepted as qualifying individuals for entry level jobs even in the absence of a traditional college degree.


Given all that, I asked the assembled faculty and staff, what is the purpose of Ithaca College? Do we provide services that will soon be rendered obsolete by less expensive and more convenient alternatives? What are the distinctive and valuable aspects of an education gained in residence on a campus, and how can we make sure we are maximizing those elements of distinctiveness and value?


Since it is my job to think constantly about the mission and focus of an Ithaca College education, I knew there were good answers to the questions I was posing. I wanted to be sure our faculty and staff were also aware of those answers, since after all they are the ones who actually create student learning environments in the curriculum, through co-curricular activities, and in the residence halls.


Thirty minutes later, I was holding a four inch stack of note cards and slips of

paper. The handwriting on these submissions was often scrawling, reflecting the urgency and passion of the writers. The insights expressed make clear that IC faculty and staff do not simply work here, committed to their jobs but uncaring of the bigger picture. Their responses were deeply thoughtful about what makes our learning community so rich and how everyone can contribute to making it even better. 


Don’t take my word for it; let our faculty and staff speak for themselves:


What sets us apart? Human interaction – creative critical thinking – experiential learning – the application of what you are learning – travel opportunities – becoming a global citizen – internships – opportunities for service – communal living – exposure to diversity.


Students who have the best IC experience are the ones who are more engaged. They are engaged in the classroom, co-curricular sports, and other activities. They learn to balance that with an active social life too.


Everything we do needs to be immersive. If course delivery can be filmed and have the same effect it is not good enough. Every class, everyday, needs to be unique to the needs of that specific group of students.


The sharing of successes and the management of conflict are integral to personal development in support of educational growth.


Students in the IC community learn public speaking, writing skills, social skills, resourcefulness and making connections with others in ways that can’t be done online.


Our students learn about themselves; they develop confidence and become leaders skilled in team building.


We offer students a comprehensive education (intellect, emotional support, spiritual, physical and social development) not just the transmission of information.  


How do you teach tolerance and empathy to isolated individuals online?  


In Health Sciences and Human Performance students are able to observe and participate in patient care. They see their professors not just as theoretical experts, but also as model clinicians and professionals.


In Music the community of learners is critical. You maximize your talent by having excellent faculty giving excellent interactive instruction to excellent students – all working together at the same time.


Because our students learn in community, they learn by doing: values, ethics, humanity, morals, meeting deadlines, the excitement of varied lives in close proximity, becoming independent thinkers, taking chances!


Wisdom and maturity come from direct human experience, especially in a diverse setting.


Our students have an opportunity to develop “environmental intelligence:” self awareness – self regulation – social skills – learning to work with and listen to others. These are 90% of the ingredients for success in life.


Our secret is the extent of peer-to-peer learning. Interaction, especially in a diverse community, creates positive peer pressure that encourages individuals to stretch their thinking. Interaction with faculty outside class has the same effect: deep conversation advances the ability to question knowledge and gain deeper understandings. 


The core values at IC are to create opportunities for personal growth, intellectual discovery and leadership capabilities – and these will keep us relevant in years to come.


Anyone sitting alone with their computer doesn’t learn body language, non-verbal cues and a social interaction to promote themselves and their ideas to others.


IC gets you off the couch!


Indeed it does. We live in a revolutionary time in which the potential of communication technologies to organize information and guide the development of competencies is only beginning to be tapped. But the word “education” means very different things in different contexts. Sometimes it means achieving a certifiable level of skill related to some body of knowledge or set of practices. However, in its richest sense education is the process of reaching as near as we can to our full human potential. 


At Ithaca College we are blessed with a faculty and staff who are fully aware of their obligations to create an environment that fosters education in this fullest sense.


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