Beginning next summer, BGSU students might be found trekking in the Amazon, working with Senegalese immigrants in Minnesota or conserving pandas in China—thanks to a newly created fellowship that allows undergraduates to determine the setting for their learning.
BGSU’s Ellen and Dr. Chris Dalton have created the Stuart R. Givens Memorial Fellowship to provide up to two undergraduates a year the funding to pursue a passionate interest in a self-designed experience that would not be possible in a traditional classroom, job or even study abroad.
The goal is that the experience will enrich their lives and be a growth experience, enabling the Fellows to fulfill a longstanding desire.
“The neat thing about it is that it allows people to do something they are passionate about, and not something someone else is telling them to do,” Ellen Dalton said.
“We wanted to name the fellowship after the late Stuart Givens because it fits so well with his ideals of education,” Chris Dalton said. “Professor Givens was an individual who we, along with the rest of the Bowling Green community, greatly admired, and we are pleased that his family has graciously allowed the program to be named in his honor.”
Givens taught history at BGSU from 1952-97. In addition to serving as chair of the history department and Faculty Senate, director of the Canadian Studies Program and the Center for Great Lakes Research and University historian, he was instrumental in securing a Phi Beta Kappa chapter for BGSU. “An advocate and exemplar of liberal education, Dr. Givens was a committed and caring teacher who inspired and mentored four generations of BGSU students,” said Dr. Donald Nieman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Administered by Nieman, the fellowship is open to students in any major, as the Daltons established it.
“This came about as a result of updating our wills and thinking about estate planning,” Ellen Dalton said. Both Daltons have a background in chemistry, love music and travel abroad, and both work with University finances—she as coordinator of budgets for the College of Musical Arts and he as senior vice president for finance and administration. They planned to include BGSU in their estate but had not yet found the right avenue.
They were still seeking a “niche” that suited their interests when Chris Dalton saw an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Dr. Robert Allen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill about the Burch Fellows Program there. “It struck us both immediately as what we were looking for. I contacted Bobby (Allen) for additional information, and the rest, as they say, is history,” Ellen recalls.
In a College of Arts and Sciences Forum last November, Allen explained that the Burch Fellows program was named for North Carolina alumnus Lucius Burch, who told Allen that the most intense and life-changing learning experience he ever had came not in college classes but during a summer spent fly-fishing in Alaska. Allen himself had been a Watson Fellow after graduating from Davidson College and spent a year studying film in Europe. From that experience, he knew that, for a self-directed student with the proper resources, “the world unfolds into a map of places where learning can take place.”
He was inspired to design the North Carolina program, which, with funding from Burch, has had nearly 50 Fellows so far. “It allows the student to be self-motivated and undistracted, and is based on a process, not a product,” Allen said. “It’s the experience, not the product, that is central.”
Being a Givens or Burch Fellow is a major departure from traditional learning, according to Allen. “For most of their lives, students do what their parents and teachers say to do,” he said. Having a self-designed program “values what a student says he or she is most interested in. It validates rather than ignores that.”
Burch Fellows have worked with an indigenous-rights organization in the Amazon, helped with midwife-assisted births in Dublin, Ireland, and studied First- and Third-World relations by teaching English to Thai sex workers in Bangkok.
The Fellows have reported the intensity of living in those situations is all-consuming, Allen said. “It requires the students to act in a world outside the university in a purposeful way and to think of the world as a complex set of interconnections. They must draw upon their multiple intelligences, skills and experiences.”
They are challenged to teach themselves and, ultimately, to judge their own progress. As one Burch Fellow wrote after his semester away, “The freedom of assessing my own goals taught me that measuring myself could have a greater impact on learning than being measured by others.”
And, unlike the traditional, “risk-averse” classroom in which students focused on getting good grades are discouraged from taking risks, an experience such as the Burch or Givens Fellowship is completely at risk of failure. In preparing their ambitious plans, “they can only anticipate a fraction of what can go wrong,” Allen said humorously. “Inevitably, they must confront failure. And they learn that sometimes failure is the best way to learn.”
The Givens Fellows, like their Burch counterparts, will be required to speak about their experience at a dinner upon their return. “I cry every single year because the stories they tell about this transformative experience are among the most moving I’ve ever heard on a college campus,” Allen said.
The process of applying for the Fellowship encourages applicants to think broadly in shaping their projects and to look beyond activities that relate to their field of academic study to something they dream of doing and that the University can foster. They must also carefully plan all the necessary steps to accomplish that dream.
To qualify as a Givens Fellow, the applicant must be a full-time undergraduate student in good academic standing with the University and must have completed at least two semesters at BGSU before the Fellowship experience. The student must also expect to return to BGSU for at least two semesters before graduating.
A Web site is being prepared, and applications will be accepted beginning this semester. An advisory committee will judge the applications and choose the recipients. Though they are not members of the committee, “we’re anxious to see what BGSU students will do with this idea,” said Ellen Dalton. “It seems more fun to start something while we're alive and can enjoy the results.” The couple has made an initial five-year commitment to the fellowship.
While the Fellows chosen will be the obvious beneficiaries, if BGSU’s experience mirrors North Carolina’s, the University stands to gain as well. “The impact on the intellectual culture is vastly disproportionate to the number of Fellows (four or five a year at North Carolina),” Allen said. “It’s mentioned in every admissions tour, and students applying to the University may do an alternate admissions essay on what they would like to do as a Burch Fellow.”
Even though the likelihood of receiving the fellowship is very low, the possibility continues to draw students to the institution and to challenge them to think about, given the resources, “where in the world they would pursue their passion.”