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Student-Focused Efforts Yield Results

Over the past 125 years, students have been at the heart of the UT Austin geosciences program. More recently, in 2007, the Jackson School launched a strategic plan that set the goal of “attracting the best and brightest students and creating a comprehensive approach to education that promotes student success.” At the core of this plan was the effort to build a tight-knit community that would help students, faculty, researchers and staff achieve their best.

Community and Holland Family Student Center

Holland Family Student Center

The Holland Family Student Center offers Jackson School students the chance to connect and study with each other.

The Holland Family Student Center, opened in summer 2012, is the physical embodiment of the Jackson School’s community-building efforts. If you visit on any day of the school year, you’ll see students meeting in study groups, visiting with faculty members and doing homework.

“For me and many of my classmates, the student center feels like home,” says graduate student Brandon Okafor. “It’s a place where we can study, socialize and get help from tutors and advisors.”

In addition to enhancing traditional activities, such as freshman and graduate student orientations, master’s thesis day, academic advising and career services, the student center has also enabled new initiatives. This year, student advisors kicked off the first annual fall Freshman Challenge, which provides new students with points in exchange for completing various enrichment activities, like meeting with tutors, attending the career fair, talking to faculty members and attending student organization meetings. About 70 percent of freshmen competed in the challenge, and the top two point-earners won free textbooks for the following semester.

The student center also provided a platform for a new Jackson School tradition – Study Palooza. Held at the end of fall and spring semesters prior to final exams, these all-day events provide students with a festive group study space and access to tutors and impromptu study groups. Drawing between 60 and 80 attendees per session, Study Palooza enables students to learn from each other and better prepare for exams.

“The students who started last fall were the first to come in with the new student center—it’s all they’ve known,” says Nicole Evans, assistant dean for student affairs and administration in the Jackson School who has worked in the school since 2007. “They’re the most tightknit and confident group of students I’ve seen.”

Measuring Impact

Freshman Neo-Geo Field Trip

The Freshman Neo-Geo Field Trip helps students build community

The recent increased community-building in the Holland Family Student Center is part of a long term initiative. Since launching our strategic plan in 2007, we created undergraduate recruiting and merit based scholarships, as well as prestigious graduate fellowships to attract and keep the best and brightest. We raised our admissions standards. We created a two-day field event called The Neo-Geo Trip, or TNT, to help incoming freshmen bond with each other and get their bearings within the school. We began offering free tutoring in math, physics and chemistry, related fields critical to student success in the geosciences. We created the Undergraduate Honors Program, in which students do research projects with faculty and research scientists, write and defend a thesis, and visit spectacular geological sites with top faculty. We hired 20 new faculty members, broadening the scope of courses offered and student research opportunities.

These various efforts appear to be moving the academic needle. From fall 2007 to fall 2012, average undergraduate GPAs rose from 2.75 to 3.10.

“Building a cohesive community at the Jackson School means that students feel more connected to their studies, their professors and advisors and, ultimately, each other. As our students become more involved in the school, we continue to see increased academic performance,” says Sharon Mosher, dean.

Continued Investment

Despite recent successes, our work is far from over. As we strive to become the number one geoscience program in the world, we must continue to further support our students and future geoscience leaders.

Undergraduate GPAs are on the rise, which increases the need for more merit-based scholarship funds. Awarded in recognition of outstanding academic achievement and progress toward a degree program, these scholarships ensure that accessibility to a Jackson School education is based on personal accomplishment.

Additionally, we continue to seek funding to attract and retain high-caliber graduate students through Prestigious Graduate Fellowships. This program enables graduate students to receive financial support over the entire course of their Jackson School academic careers, helping the school to remain competitive with other graduate programs and further our reputation as a top-tier research institution.

We also need funding in order to update lab space, conference rooms and other common areas that facilitate learning and community-building for students.

To get involved, please contact Karen Cochran at (512) 471-6010 or kcochran@jsg.utexas.edu.

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