Simon Ilesanmi talks to students
Simeon Ilesanmi has a discussion with senior religion and political science major Monica Giannone (right) and junior religion and biology major Haowei Tong.

Teachers learn, learners teach

Story by Ann Hardie
Photo by Ken Bennett

Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series describing key initiatives in Wake Forest’s strategic plan.

Faculty. Student. Engagement.

These three words, when put together, take on many meanings at Wake Forest. They mean that senior Monica Giannone discovered that her true passion is studying the religious and political complexities of the Middle East while hashing out the ethics of war with her advisor.

They mean that Yvonne Hinson, associate professor who directs the University’s accountancy programs, encourages her students to step outside the comfort of the classroom and embark on the messier task of valuating real companies, giving them a first-hand glimpse of how ethical—and some not so ethical—businesses can be.

They mean that Megan Wright (’09) was so moved by service learning trips to Nicaragua and El Salvador that she has entered medical school with a dream of providing free health care to the poor.

They mean that Rebecca Alexander will take her biochemistry students to London, Cambridge and Paris this summer to ponder the discoveries of Darwin and Pasteur and build DNA models in the pub where Watson and Crick debated the double helix. Her students typically don’t get to study abroad because of their demanding course loads.

“I thought, ‘What if I took them and did biochemistry somewhere else?’” said Alexander, associate professor of chemistry and Robert P. and Debra Lee Faculty Fellow.

“This is the kind of thing that we can do because we are at Wake Forest and we have the freedom to try new things. We are encouraged to ask, ‘What would you do if no one was holding you back?’”

Over road trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, afternoons tutoring underprivileged kids, sing-a-longs at Bruce Springsteen concerts, clinical trials aimed at improving the lives of older adults, or home-cooked meals around the family dinner table, faculty connect with students in ways that set Wake Forest apart from other top universities.

This is not surprising. Wake Forest faculty are different from those at liberal arts colleges emphasizing great teaching and from those at research institutions emphasizing groundbreaking scholarship. Wake Forest faculty are not either great teachers or groundbreaking scholars. They are both. “We try to balance the two,” said Simeon Ilesanmi (JD ’05), Washington M. Wingate Professor of Religion. “Teaching without research is dry; it is empty. Research without teaching is meaningless. Both support each other.”

The University’s strategic plan calls for building even more exceptional faculty-student engagement opportunities. As part of that effort, Wake Forest is seeking to expand its first-rate faculty development program by providing significantly more resources for the Teaching and Learning Center. A new Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Center, URECA for short, encourages scholarly faculty-student engagement by committing professors and resources to students interested in doing highend research.

The University has asked all schools to expand or refashion their curriculum with the goal of broadening the global and cultural awareness of students. Meanwhile, the student body increasingly is infusing the University with a healthy dose of cultural awareness of its own. Almost 24 percent of the current first-year class is racially or ethnically diverse. Students were part of the driving force behind a new minor in African Studies.

“Diversity — whether racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, even ideological — characterizes the world we live in today and the world our students will occupy 50 years from now,” said Michele Gillespie, associate provost for academic initiatives and Kahle Family Associate Professor of History. “Diversity in the classroom allows faculty to lead students through questions and perceptions of difference.”

Through the Institute for Public Engagement, faculty and students will continue to build on the vision that inspired Wake Forest founders 175 years agoÑthe education of civic-minded people who will transform the world into a more enlightened, more compassionate place. The University’s motto, Pro Humanitate, rings as true today as ever. Already, fifty courses incorporate a community service or community-based component. Two-thirds of Wake Forest students contributed 85,000 volunteer hours last year alone. “Wake Forest is very focused on aiding the community and getting students outside the Wake Forest bubble,” said Giannone, who in addition to her intense courses and many campus activities, tutors middle school students in the Winston-Salem area.

Giannone arrived at Wake Forest four years ago expecting to pursue a career in medicine. Instead, she will graduate this spring with a double major in political science and religion. Her long-term plan includes graduate school in international relations, focusing on Islam and the Middle East. “She has immersed herself in a complex and difficult path,” Ilesanmi said.

Ilesanmi, whose own research focuses on international human rights, has guided Giannone along that path. “He has been a great mentor for meÑhelping me figure out what classes to take, helping me figure out what I want for my future and how to make the most of my time at Wake Forest. I am excited to graduate because I know what I want to do. That is a great testament to Wake Forest,” Giannone said.

Wake Forest wants all studentsÑfrom the greenest of freshmen to the most confident of third-year law studentsÑto have the opportunity for that kind of mentoring experience. Gillespie calls a mentor “an incredible gift.”

“Part of their responsibility is to take students to a new depth of learning and critical thinking. Students are not just getting their professors’ take on thingsÑyou have a mentor alongside you to help you figure out who you are and how you think. You need to recognize your limitations and blind spots. I think that is essential in a world that is so very complex and that is constantly changing,” she said. The University increasingly is drawing staff and alumni into the mentoring mix as well. In 2008 the School of Law initiated an alumni mentoring program; currently all first- and second-year students have alumni mentors.

With an enrollment of less than 7,000, Wake Forest’s size naturally lends itself to vibrant mentoring and facultystudent engagement. The University remains committed to a ratio of one faculty member for every eleven undergraduate students.

“You actually know your professors,” said Evan Carstensen, a senior from Blacksburg, Virginia. “Their number one interest is that their students do well. They are not looking for some bell-shape curve where some students fail. They truly want everyone to succeed.”

Master of Divinity student Rebecca Hewitt-Newson believes her close interaction with her female professors is giving her the tools and confidence to enter the ministry and help churches engage with their communities. “Being a woman in the ministry in some denominations still is seen as a trailblazing kind of thing. It has been very valuable for me to engage with some of the women on the faculty who have had some experience doing this and are still doing this. It is something that is encouraging and empowering to me,” Hewitt- Newson said.

The benefits of faculty-student engagement are not reserved only for students. Close relationships with students inspire faculty both on a personal and professional level. Ask Jack Rejeski (P ’05, ’08), director of the Behavioral Physiology Laboratory and Thurman D. Kitchin Professor of Health and Exercise Science. His department provides numerous opportunities for undergraduate research with actual participants from the community.

“First of all, one of the most rewarding experiences for a professor is to go into a classroom and see students excited about what is being presented to them. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to help promote a generation that can better understand the importance of reducing suffering in the world,” said Rejeski, whose primary research interest involves interventions on the prevention and rehabilitation of physical disability and frailty among older adults.

“In addition, I weave a good deal of my research into my classroom experiences. Students enjoy hearing about what is happening here at Wake Forest in the area of behavioral medicine, and I often find that they provide a fresh perspective on new ideas that I may be considering,” he said. “I am convinced that what we teach students is not as important as teaching them how to think creatively; to learn how to use the scientific method to actively solve problems rather than searching for the answer in what I have included in my slide presentations.”

Had Rebecca Alexander taken a position in chemistry at another research institution, she might be teaching one course while focusing most of her time on scholarship. At Wake Forest, she teaches four classes of graduate and undergraduate students. She is not complaining. The way she sees it, her students keep her on her toes.

“Every year someone will ask me a question that no one has asked me before. Typically I know the answer. But often enough it is an in-depth probing question that I have to look up. I’ve learned not to get upset by that. It shows that students are synthesizing knowledge and putting the pieces together, that they are curious about things. The students make me a better teacher and a better scientist.”