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Transforming the student experience

Students on a study abroad learning to write in Chinese

TLO program celebrates 10 years of academic excellence


The freshman who first enrolls at the University of North Florida is a completely different person than the senior who confidently strides across the stage to accept a diploma four years later.


Those semesters of study, hours of classroom discussion and exposure to dynamic learning opportunities serve as catalysts. They jumpstart personal growth and craft graduates who are academically distinguished, community-aware and driven to make a difference. This transformation speaks to the core essence of what makes a UNF education unique.


The University is large enough to offer a range of academic programs that explore a huge breadth and depth of scholarly disciplines, but the student/faculty ratio is small enough to allow for exceptional attention to the interests and ambitions of individual students. By the time graduation comes around, the average Osprey has had the chance to become immersed in a foreign culture during a study abroad, engaged with the community during a service-learning experience or academically enriched through cutting-edge research with top-notch faculty.


It was 10 years ago when President John A. Delaney formalized these core aspects of the UNF student experience through the establishment of the Transformational Learning Opportunity initiative, which allocates several hundred thousand dollars to support academic engagements that broaden and deepen students’ intellectual and world views. The ultimate goal is to promote those outside-the-box academic moments where students learn more by doing it themselves — those “aha!” moments that can change the course of an academic career.


“We try not to limit these experiences because every student learns in a slightly different fashion,” said Dr. Earle Traynham, UNF’s provost and vice president of Academic Affairs. “Some thrive in a research laboratory, others may experience success outside the traditional classroom. What we provide is exposure to learning opportunities that transcend the norm.”


UNF students have been transformed during intensive four-to-five weeks of language and culture study in Strasbourg, France. Undergraduates have worked in tandem with faculty on analyzing cellular and molecular genetic techniques and collecting aquatic animal samples for marine-based projects — research opportunities that are typically reserved for graduate students at most other institutions.


Dr. Daniel Moon, associate vice president and dean of Undergraduate Studies, said these transformational experiences are an integral component of UNF’s strategic plan and institutional mission. The financial support provided by the TLO program ensures that students won’t miss attending conferences to present their research, studying abroad in exotic locales or purchasing supplies for research projects due to financial constraints.


“Having access to a full-range of academic activities ensures that our students are exceptionally qualified when they graduate,” Moon said. “Instead of just having an internship under their belts, students who’ve engaged in a TLO experience have often worked in their chosen field or undergone a transformation that granted them valuable personal and professional insights.”


Immersive instruction


The best way to learn is to dive in. Immersion is key in academics, especially in the language arts, according to UNF French professor Shira Schwam-Baird. Since 1999, she has taken nearly 140 UNF students to Strasbourg, France for four-to-five weeks of intensive language and culture study. Students learn French at the Strasbourg CIEL language school, where native speakers teach the class entirely in French. They also live with French families so their immersion experience continues outside the classroom. Their experience is rounded out with tours into the French countryside and a weekend in Paris — experiences that comprise a culturally diverse glimpse into French society.


“This is one of the longest-standing study abroad experiences at UNF,” she said. “I’ve taken 17 different groups to France, and it’s become a real highlight for me every year.”


Schwam-Baird offered this study abroad long before the TLO program was introduced, but the monetary support provided by the University has helped defray much of the cost for students who want to travel to France and enhance their language skills.


Victoria Hayes, a student from the most recent TLO cohort, said she felt having real, constant immersion was integral to her understanding of the language. The matriarch of Hayes’ French host family spoke English sparingly, forcing her to concentrate and assimilate the language at an even faster rate.


“It really ramped up my language skills out of necessity,” Hayes said. “This wasn’t a classroom in the U.S. It was France, and if I couldn’t communicate in the native language, then I would be left behind.”


Hands-on learning


There’s also something to be said for learning by doing. Occasionally, that learning experience involves hefting power tools and wrestling with solid slabs of metal. One recent TLO, guided by sculpture professor Jenny Hager-Vickery, took place in July. Her students created original works of art on site at the Josephine Sculpture Park in Frankfort, Ky. These were large-scale, semi-permanent pieces that were exhibited alongside professional artists.


Hager said the work gave her students insight into the complexities of planning and executing large-scale works of art on a strict timeline. She wanted them to step outside the classroom and create living pieces of art that would evolve over time and feed into the natural environment of the sculpture park. Being able to display student work for public consumption is vital exposure for budding sculptors, and she believes there’s a truly transformational aspect of creating works from scratch that connect with an audience.


“This is a project that combines a lot of different factors — community involvement, hands-on learning and an opportunity to travel a bit,” Hager said. “It’s a great example of what makes UNF unique and showcases the talents of our students.”


Her student, Mary Ratcliff, paired up with fellow artist Stephen Paine to produce a heavy metal domed sculpture that featured an audience participation component where patrons could pay their respects to the natural world surrounding them. She worked with a metal fabricator, employed a lot of math and geometry and wielded a welder and angle grinder in new and unexpected ways.


“It was completely immersive,” she said. “We were working with our colleagues, sharing the same space and testing our limits with each other sometimes. It was a tough experience to produce what we wanted to produce in the time we had, which was awesome and awful at the same time. But what I learned is that I could handle this challenge. It was so much more than making an art piece.”


Real-world research


UNF’s research portfolio is consistently expanding, and undergraduate students are often the greatest beneficiaries. They’re able to publish papers and work in the lab early on in their academic careers. Moon, the Undergraduate Studies dean, said this type of access sets UNF apart from larger institutions.


“You typically don’t get that kind of training until you’ve committed to an academic path,” Moon said. “At UNF, we view this type of learning as part of the journey that a student should take to determine their passion.”


It doesn’t hurt that UNF boasts a lineup of nationally respected faculty who regularly include undergraduates in their research endeavors.

Dr. Jim Gelsleicter from the Coastal Biology Flagship Program is a leading authority on shark ecology, and he takes students from his courses out on research vessels to navigate the First Coast in search of research samples. Their results paint a clearer picture of the impact humans have on the habitats of juvenile sharks. This training in the field complements an assortment of classroom-based activities, such as group discussions, hands-on laboratory assignments and research seminars presented by visiting scientists. The TLO grant sponsoring this class has helped inspire the paths of many of Gelsleicter’s students who have pursued graduate school and careers as research-focused biologists.


Dr. Cliff Ross, another UNF biology professor, has published extensive research documenting the declining health of coral reefs due to the combined effects of land-based sources of pollution and climate change. Working with scientists from Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory and UNF students, he’s shown how environmental issues are negatively impacting generations of coral species. A TLO grant this year sponsored 10 days of sample collection in the waters near the Mote Marine Tropical Laboratory on the Gulf Coast. Ross’ findings have been published in academic journals and feature co-authors who have served as his research assistants and students. 


Kevin Olsen is one of Ross’ longest-serving student researchers. The biology student was eager to learn the ropes and first started assisting Ross during his junior year at UNF, working in the field and jointly authoring academic papers. In total, Olsen published five papers — including the coral reef article — in collaboration with Ross during his six-year stint at UNF, which culminated with a master’s degree in biology. These research opportunities — sponsored by TLO grants — helped put him on his current path as a doctoral student in ecology and evolution at Florida State University and inspired his passion for academia.


“UNF was great for me in that I was in a 30-student classroom with Dr. Ross, and I could speak with him after lectures and learn more,” Olsen said. “He was very welcoming of undergrads helping with research, and I started right away working in his lab. This definitely led me to where I am now.”


The TLO experience isn’t confined to the College of Arts and Sciences. Each of the University’s academic colleges have used TLO grants to sponsor faculty research and student study abroad opportunities.


Dr. Reinhold Lamb from the Department of Accounting and Finance advises students from the Osprey Financial Group (OFG) who have turned a $500,000 seed donation from 2002 into more than $1 million this past year, a growth rate of more than 7.5 percent — even better than the market average.


The OFG’s base of operations is a high-tech financial research lab that mimics a Wall Street trading floor. Students crunch numbers, analyze market developments and pitch ideas like the professionals. That’s why it was natural for them to see the New York Stock Exchange for themselves. Lamb applied for and received a TLO grant in 2006 — the TLO program’s inaugural year — that paid for travel and lodging for 10 students to visit the NYSE, the New York Mercantile Exchange NYMEX, the Federal Reserve and Bloomberg.


“It was important for them to see for themselves the practical application of the work they do in the lab,” Lamb said. “Each of our OFG students is incredibly marketable when they leave our program. Once they enter the workforce, it’s important that they’ve already experienced what the professional money management industry has to offer.”


Transforming Ospreys


Transformation has no limits. UNF students have undertaken research-heavy directed studies; they’ve founded leadership programs and expanded their perceptions of the global community. One student even used a TLO stipend to produce a play that was performed at UNF and around the First Coast.


The hallmark of a UNF education is the truly transformational learning environment offered to students. UNF scholars study abroad at far greater rates than the national average, they spend more time in undergraduate research settings than they could at most other institutions and they’re able to interact with faculty members on a one-on-one basis thanks to the University’s commitment to keeping class sizes small. Moon said the 10-year anniversary of the Transformational Learning Opportunities (TLO) program is a testament to that commitment. Financially supporting these trailblazing students and faculty has helped broaden and deepen students’ intellectual pursuits and worldviews while transforming the overall college experience.


“The TLO program is a wonderful way to summarize what makes UNF unique,” Moon said. “There’s no place like this, and there’s no program quite like this that actively pushes students to learn more about the world around them — not just what they can learn in the classroom. As the TLO program continues to grow and encompass more projects and ideas, I expect to see more Ospreys graduating from UNF with a clearer picture of their personal and professional goals for the future.”