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magazine home > archives > winter 2003 > features

The U of M's University College uses innovation, creativity and a vast set of resources to make education for "nontraditional" students a perfect fit.

Square Pegs
by Benjamin Potter

Dr. Darnell and Dr. Lattimore

Drs. Susanne Darnell and Dan Lattimore

They say you can't fit a square peg in a round hole. And all too often, that's just how nontraditional adult and interdisciplinary students feel. There's a place at The University of Memphis, though, where nontraditional students are the rule, not the exception: University College.

As its name implies, the University College melds courses from every corner of The U of M to accommodate majors that defy categorization elsewhere on campus. For example, do biomedical illustration students belong with science majors in the College of Arts and Sciences, or should they be placed with art majors in the College of Communication and Fine Arts? The University College solves these conundrums by housing these hybrids.

New Dean Dan Lattimore recently replaced Dr. Susanne Darnell, who retired last August after serving the University College in various capacities since it was founded in 1975. Darnell says helping to form the school was a "very satisfying task," and says it has proved to be a worthy addition to The U of M.

"The role we've played in the University has been significant," Darnell (MA '70) says, "and I've enjoyed working with so many good faculty and outstanding students."

Despite the change in leadership, the primary goal remains the same: Give the students the best degree programs possible.

"We're trying to enhance the quality of education while increasing opportunities," Dr. Lattimore says.

One such educational enhancement is the highly involved special project. Students are required to complete a semester-long project during their final semester. The outcome has varied from student to student; the common thread is their value to potential employers, who increasingly want to see portfolios and other examples of applied knowledge.

Crossing Over

The University College occasionally acts as a laboratory for cultivating new degrees, but some degrees' homes aren't necessarily static.

"This college has become an incubator for new degree programs," Darnell says. "We'll start one when there are a small number of persons who are interested in a particular major. Later, it possibly will become a 'traditional' major in another college."

Here are some of the degree programs the University College has matured for other colleges:

  • Commercial Music (now in College of Communication and Fine Arts)
  • African-American Studies (now in College of Arts and Sciences)
  • American Humanics (now in School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy)
  • Judaic Studies (now in College of Arts and Sciences)

"We really want to place more emphasis on learning outcomes," Lattimore says. "A culminating experience like the special project brings all of the student's coursework together. It's one of the best ways of looking at how successful the educational process has been."

The required special project isn't the only aspect of the University College that makes it unique. Students — many of whom are adults returning to higher education — have a variety of options that bolster their ability to get a degree. Off-campus sites and distance learning opportunities in Dyersburg and Jackson, Tenn., have opened up The U of M to the entire western Tennessee region.

The online degree is also opening doors beyond physical campus borders. Don't mistake this program for the correspondence courses of yesteryear — classes feature plenty of interaction among classmates and with the instructor. Courses are engaging, informative and challenging.

Sharon Doyle, the University College's distance education adviser, says online learning programs give the flexibility that some students desire.

"It's a great benefit for students to be able to go to class when it is convenient for them — even if that's at 3 a.m.," she says. "Most are mature and know the need of finishing a degree for their advancement."

Despite ventures into the online and distance-learning arenas, most courses take place on The U of M campus, where the University College takes every opportunity to gather great instructors.

"We don't really have our own faculty, so to speak, but we have use of all the University faculty, so in some sense we can pick from the best," Lattimore says.

Further, the University College uses key adjunct instructors. There are great benefits to using these instructors, says Dr. Dorothy Norris-Tirrell, associate professor and director of the public and nonprofit administration program. She assisted with the creation of the American Humanics program, which later was moved to the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy.

University College Alumni
Last October, UC Alumni Board Members met with Dean Dan Lattimore and Associate Dean David Arant. From left, Laura Ingram, Lattimore, Shanika Scurlock, Barbara Arnold, Mary Lou Lane, Dottie Spikner, Barbara Lawing, Arant, Gwendolyn Williams, Walter Crews and Mary Brignole.

"Adjunct instructors come with a really practical understanding of information," Norris-Tirrell says. "They have firsthand experience with the topics being discussed. They've been there. They know what it's like."

Superb faculty and seasoned adjunct instructors aren't the only resources, either. With so many working adults enrolled in the University College, the students themselves become a resource network for each other.

"You have people with work experiences — people with life experiences — who share with each other and really contribute to the educational environment," Lattimore says, adding that students often can earn experiential credit for those work experiences.

Norris-Tirrell says that adult students generally do well because they are more motivated.

"They take school so seriously," she says. "They have made the commitment and the sacrifices to be here. Many have full-time jobs, and going to school means time away from their families or their free time."

University College leaders point to the numerous successful alumni as a way to gauge the school's effectiveness. Examples of alumni who are making positive impacts in Memphis include Rose Wallace Klimek (BPS '85), former director of emergency services at Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association; downtown redevelopment pioneer Carol Coletta (BPS '81); Susan Helms (BPS '88), coordinator of the Mid-South SAFE KIDS Coalition; police Captain Walter Crews (BPS '91); and Tennessee Representative John DeBerry (BPS '96).

And current students in the University College are finding out what alumni already know — being a "square peg" at The U of M means a richly unique education is on the way.

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