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.”