New Honors Program Emphasizes the Power of Experience

Experiential Learning Scholars Program members such as freshman Elisabeth Chramer can try out various occupations to find the perfect fit before they launch their careers.

Bradley Newcomer, Ph.D., is on a crusade against midlife crises. The director of UAB’s newest honors initiative, the Experiential Learning Scholars Program (ELSP), aims to get students to put their career goals through a three-year stress test—and sharpen their focus on what they want to do for the rest of their lives.

“We make them start wrestling with some of those things that a lot of people don’t wrestle with until they’re in their 30s and 40s,” Newcomer says. “They start out by articulating their personal, professional, and career goals—where they want to be five and 10 years from now—and we get them to think about why those goals are important to them. If they want to be a physician, why? The answer can’t be, ‘My mom and dad told me to.’”

Enter the Pied Piper

Starting in their sophomore years, students complete at least six “experiences,” such as job shadowing, directed research or scholarly activities, extensive leadership activities, service learning, Study Away, and internships. Each must relate to their personal goals and coursework. “UAB is already viewed as a mecca of experiential learning, especially in the medical fields and in research,” Newcomer says. “I view our program as a pied piper. We’re bringing in students and directing them to these opportunities all over campus.”

These experiences can’t be completed in an afternoon, Newcomer adds. A student interested in medicine may shadow physicians in three specialties, spending 60 hours over the course of a semester. “We want students to pick their brains; find out what they enjoy about the profession, what they don’t like, what they think about health-care reform, that kind of thing.”

Sophomore Dustin Bowen, a chemistry major who plans to go to medical school, shadowed Montgomery physician Evan Lyon, M.D., who has been involved in medical outreach in Haiti and now provides community-based HIV care in rural Alabama. Bowen was inspired by UAB’s 2009 freshman discussion book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Paul Farmer, M.D., a physician working in Haiti who has collaborated with Lyon. Bowen hopes to visit UAB’s HIV outreach center in the African nation of Zambia by his senior year and may eventually pursue medical relief work as a career. In the meantime, he plans to teach chemistry labs at local high schools.

Getting to the Heart

“Those of us in the ELSP are very driven,” Bowen says. “We are attracted to real-world experiences that let you get to the heart of who you are and what you want out of life.”

The ELSP, which began in fall 2009, accepted its second cohort this September. That group includes freshman Katie Beaufait, who plans to major in biomedical engineering and eventually become a pediatric orthodontist. “I love to learn hands-on,” she says. “If I can see what I am learning, it usually helps me understand the concepts better.” Fellow newcomer Elisabeth Chramer, who plans to pursue a degree in broadcast communication with an emphasis on political science, agrees. “The main focus of the program is the ‘doing’ aspect of learning, inside and outside the classroom,” she says. “Hands-on learning is my best way of utilizing my time and gaining experience for my future career.”

Indeed, with the arrival of the ELSP’s second cohort, a distinct identity has emerged, Newcomer says. “These are individuals who are very proactive and have already done a lot outside the classroom in high school; they have a very high level of initiative.”

So far, the ELSP has attracted many students interested in medicine, but a wide variety of future careers are represented, Newcomer says—including graphic design, music, and forensic anthropology. And even though there is a great deal of soul searching involved, “the students love the process,” he adds. “They love being able to tailor something to themselves, to not be told exactly what to do.” The program itself is breaking the mold. “You won’t find another honors program like this anywhere in the country,” says Newcomer. “We are trying to create something brand new.”