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As an Academic Enrichment Services tutor, writing center tutor, and teaching assistant at Ithaca College, Julia Becker has enjoyed helping other students on their paths to success. Her plan after graduation is to become an English teacher—but when she came to IC, she was unsure about her direction.
Julia entered Ithaca College’s Exploratory Program, which gives students up to four semesters before declaring a major to take courses across IC’s five schools, receiving focused advisement and mentoring along the way. “I’m an organized person, so not knowing what I wanted to do was kind of stressful,” Julia says. “The Exploratory Program at IC gave me a direction and a plan to get me going on a path that felt right.”
As a sophomore, Julia explored English as a possible major. “I took Intro to Poetry and [Approaches to] Literary Theory, and it just clicked. I hadn’t taken an English class since high school, and once I settled into it I realized that’s where I was supposed to be.”
As part of the Ithaca College Honors Program, Julia took her newfound love for English to the source with a semester abroad in London, England. Through an independent study course of her own creation, Julia collaborated with IC professor Robert Sullivan on his literary work. She spent weeks in the Rare Books Reading Room of the British Library, transcribing an original work by Renaissance-era humanist Sir Thomas Elyot. Julia and Professor Sullivan will eventually create a modern critical edition of the 16th-century book.
“Having the chance to work on something so unique that will result in a publication credit to my name is a valuable experience that I never imagined I could have as an undergraduate.”
Discovering her passion for English made Julia realize she wants to share it with others. She was accepted to the educational nonprofit Teach for America, and will be teaching English to secondary school students in a disadvantaged area after graduation. She also plans to pursue an English Ph.D. to become a professor.
“Working closely with students at Ithaca to help them excel and teach them important skills has been a rewarding experience. It has helped prepare me for the teaching that I’ll be going on to do in the future.”
Computer science and history are not commonly paired in the classroom. But at Ithaca College, professors Ali Erkan and Michael Smith have begun a collaboration that may help improve the way students learn.
The project began because of computer science professor Ali Erkan’s curiosity. He wanted to look at how students use wikis—websites developed collaboratively by a community of users who can add and delete information—so he could research and create a visual map of the way the students make connections between ideas. He asked himself, If students produce things that can be visualized as structures, will that allow us to understand understanding itself?
“I think computer science allows you to develop the tools to work on that question—but then you need a context,” Ali says. “I thought the humanities would be the best context to explore, and I had to find the right person to work with.”
Ali had just the person in mind—a history professor he had met during a bus ride in Ithaca a couple years earlier and had since interacted with on the IC campus. He emailed Michael Smith to share his idea.
“The fact that Ithaca, both as an institution and a community, is small enough that you can have these kinds of interpersonal connections that can then become more formal collaborations is something I really value,” Michael says. “In some ways I’m an odd choice because I’m a little bit of a digital skeptic, but when Ali approached me with this idea of using wikis as a way of representing knowledge—that you could kind of lift up the hood and see some structures in there—I was intrigued.”
Ali and Michael have been working with students in both their fields to further explore the project’s questions. They created a grant proposal and received a digital humanities start-up grant from the National Endowment for Humanities. They hope that by gaining understanding of how thought connections are formed, they can eventually help students improve how they research and learn.
Ithaca College has given them the support they need to make the project a success. “It is a teaching-oriented institution, so we’re encouraged to be innovative and emphasize teaching excellence in all sorts of ways. So this is a way to remain active as scholars and at the same time improve what happens in our classroom,” says Michael.
“There’s no quota for the amount of papers you have to write or the amount of money you have to bring in. Those things are in place at other institutions so that there’s more research productivity, but I think it ends up being a hindrance on the research,” Ali says. “We both feel liberated by not operating under those constraints, so we can simply follow our curiosity, and that becomes our optimum point of operation. Because we are curious, we are productive.”
>> More on this story: Untangling the Web
Some day in the not-so-distant future, as cities expand and climate change continues, Andreas Jonathan will be working to strike a balance between urban growth and environmentalism. “We’re living in a world that is very quickly urbanizing. There are a lot of mega-cities continuing to grow, and I think cities will be the battleground for sustainability in the future,” Andreas says.
As a freshman at Ithaca College, Andreas was drawn to the environmental studies program. “There was a course called Environmental Sentinels, where the purpose was to discover what you’re trying to save. We had class at night in the natural lands where we were blindfolded and had to get back to campus just by listening. It made me think about my place in the natural world.”
Andreas also felt a calling he hadn’t yet fully identified. “I needed something to complement what I was learning, so I could channel my desire for a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive society.”
Luckily at Ithaca he had mentors to help him find the right program. "It’s been very easy for me to find people who care about my future. I learned about architectural studies by speaking with professors in the art history department.”
As a sophomore, Andreas secured an internship with the Institute for Urban Design in New York City. He joined the institute’s project team for the Venice International Architecture Biennale, an event where architects and designers from around the world showcase themed designs. The U.S. theme was “spontaneous interventions”—designing to solve urban problems and create new opportunities for the public.
“What I love most about architecture is that it's so much more than building and construction. There’s history, theory, stakeholder relations, and social and environmental consequences,” Andreas says. “It struck me that anyone working in design professions must constantly be balancing, learning.”
For Andreas, learning to strike that delicate balance began with the conversations he had with mentors at IC. He plans to extend his knowledge of design beyond graduation as he pursues dual master’s degrees in architecture and city planning followed by a Ph.D.
“When I was little and was asked, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ I didn’t really know. But I knew there was this scar on the world that needed to be fixed. Then I started falling in love with architecture, city design, and social justice. It was what I always planned on doing before I even knew what it was.”
Adeesha Ekanayake grew up in Sri Lanka, an island nation off the coast of India. When political tensions closed the university he was attending, he wanted a more stable educational environment. So he flew 9,000 miles away from home to go to Ithaca College.
“Sri Lanka is a small country,” he said. “Getting off the plane at JFK, I’d never seen such scale. I felt cut off from my moorings.”
Fortunately, he’d enrolled in Ithaca College’s HOME program, a multicultural housing arrangement for international students. “The best thing I did was keep my door open. I met a lot of international students as homesick as I was. Plus, we were serious about our studies. We clicked. We got over our culture shock.”
A computer science major, Adeesha and three other students came up with an idea for an app that can scan garments in clothing stores to show negative environmental impacts regarding how the clothes were made. The team decided to enter their idea in the Business Idea Competition held by the college’s School of Business—and finished first in the software category. The team enjoyed splitting the $5,000 prize, but it was the “idea” part of the competition that sparked Adeesha’s passion for research.
“I helped a faculty member with her research, and she encouraged me to start projects of my own. At a lot of larger institutions, you wouldn’t get a chance to spend time with your professors and get to know them personally. At IC, that’s a given.”
Another one of Adeesha’s projects is a video game for physical therapy patients. Exercises recorded by the therapist are performed by a virtual figure on a Microsoft Kinect system. Appearing as a second figure, the patient is challenged to mimic the virtual one. The more accurately the exercise is performed, the more points the patient earns.
Adeesha also worked with assistant professor of computer science Doug Turnbull on MeUse, an Internet radio recommender. When a listener uses MeUse to search for an artist, it recommends three Internet radio stations and provides information to help the user choose. A paper on the project was accepted for presentation at the 14th International Society for Music Information Retrieval Conference.
“I’d originally planned going back to Sri Lanka after graduation, but there are too many employment and research opportunities in the U.S. to pass up, and IC opened my eyes to them.”
When Susannah Faulkner came to Ithaca College, she knew she was interested in politics. She didn’t know that a food allergy would lead to a passion for activism.
“As a freshman, I came into Ithaca having a severe intolerance to gluten,” Susannah recalls. “Eating in the dining hall is such a social experience, and it was really hard for me because I’d have to bring bread in the dining hall and worry about cross-contamination.”
Through her frustration, Susannah saw an opportunity to help other students. She successfully ran for Student Government Association senator for her class. “My main platform was promoting celiac awareness and food allergy awareness on campus, except I literally had no idea it would turn into my calling of some sort.”
Susannah worked with IC staff to change the menu, with supportive professors to encourage her along the way. “My academic adviser, Kelly Dietz in the politics department, was the most incredible mentor a young, passionate, driven student could ask for. Any time I threw a crazy idea at her, she would tell me how to make it happen.”
In November 2009, the gluten-free pantry opened in the Campus Center Dining Hall. “Because Ithaca is such an inclusive community, it’s so welcoming, and it’s so open to change, I was able to put forth this idea and actually see results.”
Her political path did not end there. As a senior, Susannah was elected vice president of campus affairs and co-founded the Food Allergy Awareness Club. Thanks to her efforts, there is now a gluten-free pantry in every dining hall on the Ithaca College campus. “I can’t imagine doing this anywhere else. I was in the perfect place at the perfect time in the perfect community to make a change that was really needed.”
After graduation, Susannah was recruited by Udi’s Gluten Free Foods as their university outreach specialist. The passion she found at IC has become her full-time career—leading a gluten-free revolution on campuses across the country.
“I work with interns who remind me so much of myself during my time at Ithaca,” she says. “They’re this little army of gluten-free warriors.”
>> More on this story: Student Organizations at IC
When Karlita Bleam first began to research colleges, she had a few important factors in mind. She wanted a school with a top film studies program and one that also gave students the flexibility to pursue multiple interests.
“An important thing to me was being able to come to a school and not need to transfer if I decided to change focus,” she says.
When she arrived at IC, Karlita planned to study film and marketing, but during her sophomore year her horizons began to broaden. “I was taking this documentary film class at the same time I was taking a sociology class, and they just paired so well,” she explains.
Thus her new path was born: a dual major in sociology and cinema, with plans to eventually teach sociology at the collegiate level and present her research in documentary form.
“Once I figured it out, I was like, ‘Yes!’ Everything just clicked,” Karlita says.
Karlita has tailored her college experience to reflect her extracurricular interests, too. She is a tour guide for both the College and the Roy H. Park School of Communications, a residential adviser, cochair for a new peer mentoring program and, most recently, a teaching assistant. All of these positions have given her invaluable experience with time management, working with groups, mentoring, and teaching.
“This is what I was looking for: a school where I’d have multiple opportunities,” Karlita says. “One thing led to another and then another, and then to something that you never imagined.”
“I describe Ithaca as a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience,” says Alex Moore ’07. His own Ithaca College adventure has taken a winding and rewarding path.
When Alex decided to add a writing minor to his politics major, his father suggested (as fathers do) that a grant writing course might make him more employable. Alex took his father’s advice and during the course, he read a book about nonprofit organizations. Its author, Robert Egger, was president of a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that helps the homeless. Alex emailed Egger, Egger emailed back, and shortly afterward Alex was on his way to intern at Egger’s organization, DC Central Kitchen, to write grant proposals.
“It’s one of those Ithaca chain reactions where you start in one place and wind up someplace very different,” Alex says. “What motivated me was the question of poverty—how does it happen and what can we do about it?”
Questions of poverty, human rights, and social justice continue to shape Alex’s career. He has completed a master’s degree, and now he’s working on his Ph.D. in political science, focusing his studies on humanitarian intervention in international relations. His goal is to become a college professor. “I want to have the kind of impact that my Ithaca professors had on me,” he says.
And just what was that impact? “Ithaca taught me the value of examining the unquestioned ground I stand on,” Alex says. “It’s social change. It’s changing the way people think. It’s asking big questions about the world and yourself.”