Monday, December 04, 2006

Professor's Background Helps Point Out Different World Perspectives

By Christine Magbanua

On the door of Adriana Crocker’s office hangs an upside-down map of the world, where the South Pole is on the top and the North Pole is on the bottom.

The political studies professor wants to make a point—that there is no one way to look at the world.

“There are always different perspectives, and all perspectives of the world of politics are valid,” she says.

Crocker is originally from Argentina, and her research interests are rooted in her own background and perspective. She studies the diffusion of gender quota legislation from Argentina to other Latin American countries.

Gender quotas in politics are used to increase the number of women holding public office, an area where they have been historically underrepresented.

In 1991, Argentina became the first country in the world to adopt mandatory gender quotas for its legislators.

Crocker says at the time women made up only 4 percent of Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies in Congress and even less than that in the Senate. Many women pushed for the legislation to be adopted.

Since 1991, the proportion of Argentinean women in Congress has increased very rapidly. Today women make up about 36 percent of the Chamber and more than 40 percent of the Senate.

“There has been more of a cultural transformation of the Argentine electorate in the sense that it believes that women can do as good a job, if not better, than men in politics, which would have been unthinkable fifteen years ago,” Crocker says. “You’re talking about a region that has been characterized by machismo. Today, I don’t see that anymore.”

To date, eleven other Latin American countries have adopted similar legislation, though one of those countries, Venezuela, has since abandoned its quota system. The latest to adopt the legislation was Honduras in 2000.

Gender quotas have spread outside Latin America as well, and Crocker points to countries like Rwanda and Iraq, which have made giant strides in the representation of women in government. Rwanda presently has more women in its legislature than any other country in the world. Its new constitution mandates that women hold at least 30 percent of all positions; however after the 2003 elections women made up approximately 48 percent of the new legislature.

Crocker says she believes this will increase the country’s chances for peace.

“I think the reason these countries are adopting this legislation is because they think women can help to make politics less conflict-laden,” Crocker says.

Crocker holds a law degree from a university in Argentina. She practiced labor law for about four years but decided to change her profession when she came to the United States.

“When I went to law school, I thought I was going to be this very idealistic lawyer who was going to save everybody,” Crocker says. “What I found was a very mechanistic procedure where there isn’t as much creativity as I thought. I realized I would prefer to do research and teach and do other things that require more creativity.”

Crocker earned her master’s degree and Ph.D in political science at Northern Illinois University and taught at Wheaton College and Benedictine University before joining the faculty at UIS this fall. She now teaches comparative politics, showing students how to look at politics from other countries’ perspectives.

“The profession of teaching is teaching and learning at the same time,” she says. “I am learning with them, and that’s what I like about it. It’s not a one-way street.”

Crocker believes the best way for students to learn is by participating in the process.

“When you tell someone who’s not majoring in politics that you’re going to be talking about globalization or political parties, you can see them rolling their eyes saying ‘oh this going to be so boring,’” she says. “But I try to make it interesting, and when I see some of them become interested and learn from it, it’s such a rewarding feeling.”

Crocker says she finds UIS very interesting because the people are much more diverse than at the two schools where she previously taught.

“Here, I see a lot more diversity of students in the way they think, in their backgrounds,” Crocker says. “I have a lot of older students who can bring their own experiences to class.”

As a Hispanic woman, Crocker has brought her own diversity to the UIS campus.

“This university has been very welcoming to my background and to who I am,” Crocker says. “So I have had no problems integrating myself with my peers, in the department and in the university in general. They’re wonderful.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

UIS History Professor Shows Students the Correlations Between Past and Present

by Amber Ellis

Dr. Angela Winand, assistant professor of African American studies at UIS, comes from a family of educators. Her mother taught New Orleans elementary school students for more than 30 years. Her father emphasized the importance of history at an early age, and several of her aunts and uncles were teachers as well.

“Looking back on it now, I realize that my parents were a very deep influence on me in terms of their interests in history,” said Winand. “…I guess it was sort of natural that I would end up teaching.”

Prior to her appointment at UIS, Winand was a visiting professor at Wayne State University and finished a post-doctoral fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University. She completed her undergraduate degree in history and political science from the University of New Orleans, and then went on to obtain her graduate and doctoral degrees from the American culture program at the University of Michigan.

“The thing that drew me (to UIS) was a sense of openness. Everybody has been really friendly and generous in their support,” said Winand. “Everybody seems genuinely enthusiastic about developing the university’s offerings, bringing more students to campus – more traditional students – and making sure that those students have a very good and rich learning experience. …And that’s exciting.”

This semester, Winand is teaching two courses. One focuses on the 20th century, and the other deals specifically with the Civil Rights Movement. The latter course takes students on a journey that begins with Emmett Till’s murder and makes stops at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, among other things.

The goal, Winand says, is to connect the dots, showing students how these experiences affect current policy.

“I’d like (students) to leave with just a better understanding of African American people in this country – the struggles that they have made to try and be recognized as human beings…., understanding that although Jim Crow may not exist in legal form anymore, it still exists within our institutions,” said Winand. “And that we always have to work and be aware of these issues – to try to make things better for people, for all people.”

As a scholar herself, Winand is currently pursuing research into the lives of two singer/actresses: Lena Horne and Ethel Waters. Both women used their popularity to push for integration where they performed. Winand expects her final analysis to include a look at how their public careers and reputations in film affected their personal lives and political activities. Some of her findings will be included in her spring course, which will focus on black women in film history.

Winand’s research, particularly into southern history, is driven by her love of culture, history, and all things New Orleans.

“I’ve always had an interest in knowing more about New Orleans’ history and its culture, understanding the place that I grew up in – the place that created me.”

A native of the city, Winand became interested in its culture and the Creole demographic after reading short stories by Alice Dunbar-Nelson. After that, she delved into the lives of Nellie DeSpelder and Mary Church Terrell to learn more about mixed-race identity and the representation of African American women in popular culture, and in American society, as a whole.

Next year, she would like to develop a course that centers around her hometown – both before and after Hurricane Katrina. The storm has had wide-reaching affects as the city begins rebuilding and the thousands who were displaced trickle back home or begin to put down roots elsewhere.

Those who chose new homes have already begun to spread New Orleans culture – from jazz and Mardi Gras, to gumbo and red beans and rice – across the United States. But there is so much more to the storm-ravaged city and its impact on the rest of the country, says Winand.

“I hope that students will gain an understanding of the effect of different national policies on individual lives, and come away from the course with the ways in which they have an investment as American citizens in what happens to their neighbors – that they see them as people with shared interests and shared concerns that need to be addressed, discussed and understood.”

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Friday, October 27, 2006

University Scholar Teaches Students to Challenge Their Own Assumptions

By Christine Magbanua

Lynn Fisher could have been a professor of English literature. But while in college, her love of hands-on research steered her away from Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and onto a different path.

“I still love to read. Reading novels could be described as my hobby,” she says. “But I got really fascinated with the fieldwork aspect of anthropology and working in the lab and working with materials as part of my research.”

Now Fisher is an associate professor of Anthropology at UIS, and also serves as an adjunct research associate with the Illinois State Museum.

Fisher came to UIS in 2000 from Oberlin College, where she had been a visiting instructor. She earned a B.A. in anthropology at Oberlin and an M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

"The things that brought me to UIS were its liberal arts focus, small size, and close contact with students,” she says. “Yet it’s also a place where I can really pursue my research interests.”

Currently Fisher is helping investigate the economy and society of the earliest farmers in central Europe, particularly how farming spread across the region. The project brings German and American scholars together from different backgrounds and focuses.

“It’s the most fun and exciting project I’ve ever worked on,” Fisher says. “I love the team that is collaborating on the project and the questions we are working on answering.”

Fisher says that although the history of how farming practices spread across Europe is well-documented in many areas, it nevertheless holds a lot of surprises for those interested in the human past.

“It has the potential to answer some questions about how these early farmers used the landscape and about what their economic systems were like,” she says. “Some of these are questions that we’ve have had for a long time. We’re adding a new perspective, a new kind of data to that question, so I hope that will be an important contribution.”

Fisher’s accomplishments are many – in publications (peer reviewed articles in leading journals, chapters in books, an edited volume) and awards (a Fulbright Foundation Senior Research and Teaching Award, and the University of Tübingen’s prize for ice age research).

And her contributions are not going unnoticed. She was recently named University Scholar for 2006-2007. She is one of 16 faculty members, and the only one from UIS, chosen for the award, which honors outstanding teachers and scholars at the three U of I campuses.

Fisher said she was very excited when she heard she had won the award.

“I was nominated last spring by two colleagues for whom I have an enormous amount of respect,” she says. “It was a great honor.”

Margot Duley, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was one of those who helped to nominate Fisher. She says that to be named a University Scholar, one must have outstanding accomplishments both as a teacher and a scholar. She says Fisher meets the highest standards in both categories.

“Not only is she skilled in the traditional classroom,” Duley says, “she has also developed field placements and field trips in both Illinois and Germany to bring archaeology alive to students.”

In addition to the honor of being recognized by their peers, University Scholars receive $10,000 a year for three years to support research and other scholarly activities.

Before she learned she’d been named a University Scholar, Fisher had been finishing up negotiations for a grant budget where she had been forced to cut a few things from her list.

“Right after that was completed, I got the word about the University Scholar award and I thought ‘Oh thank goodness, now I can restore the student worker that I really wanted to have.’”

Fisher has developed a program that sends students to Germany for three-and-a-half weeks to become trained in archeological field methods. She says she loves taking students with her to Germany, since most of them have never been abroad. For them, the trip is a new and exciting experience.

“To travel for archaeology instead of as a tourist is very unique,” she says. “To stay in one area, to be doing productive work, and to be working with people from that region just gives you a much closer view of what it would be like to live there. It’s very different from whizzing through on a seven-country tour.”

Back in the classroom, Fisher says the most productive and exciting part is getting students interested in investigating their own questions.

"I’m a social scientist, I’m very curiosity-driven in my own work,” she says. “And I want students to experience that—the excitement of coming up with a question that interests you for your own reasons, based on your own background, experiences, and training, and trying to figure out how you could learn more, how you could answer your own questions.”

““The thing that I value the most highly in the education experience is learning critical thinking,” she says. “How to challenge your own assumptions as you formulate your plans and your questions and then how to really look out into the world and find some evidence or other perspectives that can challenge your preconceived notions.”

Fisher said she has been able to develop strong, productive, and personally satisfying connections with faculty in several programs at UIS. She says the university has also shown great support for her archaeological work.

“I have found tremendous support for combining teaching and field research and a lot of travel in a way that has been enormously productive,” Fisher says. “So these have been, so far, the six most productive and exciting years of my life.”

Thursday, October 19, 2006

World-Class Students Find Second Home

By Christine Magbanua

Pradeep Veeramachineni remembers his first few weeks at UIS. He was far from home for the first time. He had to adjust to a new school and form new relationships. To say that he and his community of fellow new students were “homesick” for the first few weeks would be an understatement.

Pradeep is now in his third semester here, but like many students living away from their families, he still misses many of the comforts of home: home-cooked meals, old friends, his tight-knit family.

“I miss my mother a lot,” he says.

But unlike an overwhelming majority of UIS students (85 percent of whom are from Illinois), Pradeep’s home is not just a long car ride away. Pradeep is from Hyderabad, India--8,400 miles and an 18- to 24-hour plane trip from Springfield.

“My mother always had a fantasy of one of her kids studying abroad,” he says. “I’ve known the same thing from childhood in India. I wanted to know a different variety of people. I wanted to come out and learn how people are different.” So Pradeep decided to come to the United States to get a graduate degree in computer science--fulfilling his mother’s dream and satisfying a curiosity of his own.

Pradeep’s friends recommended that he apply for graduate school at UIS--a very popular choice among students from his hometown.

Jonathan GoldbergBelle, international student advisor and director of the Office of International Programs at UIS, says the university’s best recruitment tool is word of mouth.

“The biggest source is friends and relatives,” he says.

Many students also find out about UIS through the Internet, and Goldbergbelle says the office is continually working to upgrade the webpage to make it user-friendly for international students.

When GoldbergBelle first came to UIS in the fall of 1998, there were 110 international students. This semester, over 400 international students are enrolled, about 95% of them graduate students. GoldbergBelle says UIS would also like to attract more undergraduate international students.

Until recently, International Affairs was one office; now, however, it’s two. The Office of International Student Services works with students once they are admitted to the university, providing them with necessary information about their transition. International Programs conducts study abroad programs.

GoldbergBelle says international students have the same questions that anyone has when they come to a new place--Will I make new friends? What are the classes going to be like? How much do I really have to study?

But many international students also have to brace themselves for a change in weather, food, and other aspects of culture.

Veplava Chintala, also a graduate student in Computer Science, noted, “It was tough at first to get adjusted. Everything was entirely different.”

Veplava described his introduction to American fashion: “In India bell bottoms are in style,” he said. “I didn’t know that here only girls wear them.”

His friends urged him to get new clothes, but he was stubborn. “I didn’t want to waste money,” he said. “I wore them for about a week…then I couldn’t wear them anymore.”

Many international students’ biggest worry is money because federal regulations restrict much of what the students can do. GoldbergBelle says the International Student Services tries to help the students work through money issues any way it can.

“All expenses taken into consideration, we still are a reasonable buy for international students,” GoldbergBelle says. “I think the small size is also something that attracts students here, because it’s not an overwhelming campus.”

The office holds an orientation before classes start that helps answer many of the students’ questions. Students receive information about registration, academic advising, English proficiency testing, and immigration status. They get a chance to meet other students and staff at a number of social events, and in the fall they can attend “America Night” where they can sample Springfield favorites like corndogs and horseshoe sandwiches.

The office also sponsors a host family program that matches students up with a family or an individual in the community with whom they can visit, share an occasional meal, celebrate holidays, or participate in other social events.

GoldbergBelle says many host families keep up with their students after they’ve graduated.

“In some cases lifelong relationships are established,” he says. “Some hosts have even gone to visit students in their home countries and some students come back to see the hosts again.”

Veplava Chintala’s host “father” is close to his real father’s age. “He literally taught me what American culture is,” Veplava said. “Though I was new to the country, though I had a different accent, he and his family were very patient to listen to me. That helped me a lot.”

Veplava added that he found the people in Springfield to be very friendly. “More than we teach them, they try to learn from us,” he says. “They love to know our culture and our food.”

GoldbergBelle says the presence of international students at UIS can only have a positive impact on the campus.

“There is an interdependency in the world,” he says. “And the more that students have the opportunity to meet students from other countries and other cultures, the better the understanding between people.”

“And even a place like Springfield, surrounded with all of this corn and soybeans -- a lot of it is shipped overseas,” he says.

“We are really dependent on an international market even if we don’t think about it all that much. And I think it’s important for us to understand that -- how connected we are. Even here in the heartland we are connected with the rest of the world.”

Monday, September 11, 2006

UIS Offers Students Chance to Impact Community

By Christine Magbanua

Freshman Jamilia Kinney’s reason for wanting to volunteer is simple: “I just like helping people.”

Jamilia wants to be a pediatrician, and she says volunteering brings her closer to that goal.

“Volunteering sort of helps me to get a feel for what I want to do,” she said.

Jamilia lives on 2 West, the Volunteer and Service wing, in Lincoln Residence Hall. This living/ learning community is made up of students committed to volunteerism, service, and civic engagement. Students learn leadership skills, practice community building, and participate in special service programming.

“Not all colleges give you the opportunity to live on a floor where there is a group of people who wants to help other people,” Jamilia said.

Jamilia was just one of the students who visited the Campus-Community Volunteer Fair on Thursday, September 7 in PAC conference rooms C and D.

More than 20 organizations set up booths to inform UIS students about the wealth of service opportunities available to them in the community. Just a quick tour of the tables left students with a hefty collection of flyers and brochures outlining interesting and enlightening options like these:

Storybook Project
Volunteers bring children’s books, tape recorders and audio tapes into correctional facilities. Inmate/parents select a book and read it aloud, recording it on tape. The parent may also add a personal message or sing a song. The book and the tape are then mailed to the inmate’s children.

“Volunteers like this project because they get to do something very tangible and very positive for families in crisis and learn about families different from their own,” said Linda Brumleve, Storybook Project director. “We have lots of volunteers and we would love to have college students.”

Computer Banc
Volunteers refurbish donated computers to give to low income families of children with learning disabilities. No technical skills are needed; people there will teach you everything you need to know. Volunteers meet on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“The faces of the kids give you such a feeling of accomplishment,” said Mary Sheila Tracy, UIS faculty and Computer Banc volunteer. “You know you made a difference in someone’s life for the better and it’s a lot of fun too.”

St. Johns Breadline
Volunteers help serve meals to people who are homeless or otherwise need help feeding themselves and their families. The Breadline serves meals 365 days a year.

Linda Freer, Breadline assistant supervisor, said volunteers come out of the experience feeling “blessed with what they have.” Freer said many times even those who were there to do court-required community service come back to volunteer on their own time

Other volunteer organizations at the fair included:

Big Brothers/Big Sisters: Serve as a positive role model to a child in need of a friend.
Sparc: Help individuals with developmental disabilities improve the quality of their lives.
Sojourn Shelter and Services, Inc.: Help victims of domestic violence.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum: Enhance visitors’ experiences with education on Lincoln and the state of Illinois.
Special Olympics: Participate in a program that provides year-round sports training and competition to people with intellectual disabilities.
Central Illinois Food Bank: Join in the effort to feed the hungry in central Illinois communities.

The Volunteer Fair and the Living Learning Community are both projects of the UIS Office of Student Volunteers and Civic Engagement. The office helps students develop social and leadership skills by becoming involved and civically engaged in both their campus community and the greater Springfield-area community.

For more information about these and other volunteer opportunities, visit