The MUSE Project

A new student-centered initiative seeks to invigorate the educational mission of the U.

~In the last five years, the University of Utah has become one of the top 30 public research universities in the country. It has recently overtaken MIT as number one in the nation in spawning new commercial ventures, and both a current and a former faculty member have received Nobel prizes, among many other notable achievements.

While this has been a boon for the U’s bottom line financially and has increased its national and international profile, the bright spotlight on research and commercialization has caused some to ask, What about the students? How is the U making sure that students benefit from its successes and that it holds to its core mission to educate them?

In fall 2009, University of Utah President Michael K. Young met with his cabinet to review the University’s goals and priorities, and to discuss these issues. Their first observation was that students have indeed been involved in many of the University’s successes. For example, many undergraduate students assist faculty in research projects ranging from developing new techniques for environmental cleanup to assessing how music lyrics affect teens. And even projects that lead to commercial successes, such as those resulting from research conducted by faculty with USTAR (the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative), have students at the center, developing business plans and budgeting venture capital. “When we put students front and center,” says Young, “remarkable things happen.”

The U’s three-pronged mission—teaching, research, and public service—results in an educational environment that can offer students experiences to help them find educational and career paths that are right for them. Internships, assisting in research, and study abroad can give students a chance to try on different roles and, through what Young has termed “transformative intellectual experiences,” direct them toward pursuing their passions.

The cabinet and President Young made the commitment to ensure that all students have opportunities for such experiences. They also pledged to strengthen the U’s mission to educate—and to support a student-centered culture with the goal of ensuring that every student has the best possible experience during his or her time at the U, and that every interaction on campus reinforces that objective. The working title for this effort became the “Signature Experience Project.”

The Professors

The first step in setting up the project involved pinpointing faculty members to coordinate the project—those who believe in the power of the educational experience to inspire passion and to transform lives, and in the ability of students to make personal decisions about their own education.

Mark Matheson

Mark Matheson MA’85, professor/lecturer in the Department of English, was appointed director, and Mimi Locher, assistant professor in the School of Architecture, associate director. Both are also advisors able to personally share with students the ways in which their own transformative intellectual experiences have set them on the paths to rewarding careers. Matheson’s signature moment took place in an English class taught by legendary U of U professor Brooke Hopkins. “He transformed my understanding of what was possible in terms of college education—how one can grow through the educational process,” says Matheson, who went from being an undergraduate history major to a graduate student in English, committing himself to explore “the power of the imagination to transform the world.”

Mimi Locher

For Locher, it was a study abroad program in Germany. Seeing the siedlungen neighborhoods that were built under the Nazi regime (settlements designed to build loyalty among working-class members of the Nazi party) sparked her interest in architectural history and the study of nationalism. Also fluent in Japanese, Locher became interested in the role of tradition in contemporary architecture in Japan. She now teaches Japanese architecture and takes students on study trips to Japan.

Putting students in the driver’s seat meant it was crucial to get their input for the project. So the Presidential Interns, students who consult weekly with the University administration on issues in higher education, were summoned. Interestingly, each of these high-achieving students had had a transformative educational experience at the U.

The Interns

Courtney Gwinn

The interns quickly envisioned the project in concrete terms—as a wall on which graduating students imprint their signatures, along with a word or two about their most meaningful U of U experiences.

Courtney Gwinn would write “Impact.” Jonathan Ng, “Learner.” And Tiffany Murillo and Masoud Mortazavi, “Presidential Intern.”

Murillo, who grew up in Hyrum, Utah, was set on a career practicing law. Now, after her experiences as a Presidential Intern and a research assistant studying English learners in higher education, she says, “I know I want to be involved civically. I realized my passion in education—that everyone should have a post-secondary education.” Murillo may still go to law school, she says, but is more likely to become a lobbyist for education or otherwise be involved in policy rather than a lawyer “working ridiculous hours.”

Tiffany Murillo

Ng, who attended high school in Murray, Utah, plans to graduate in May with degrees in math and economics. He is also applying to law school, which sounds fairly straightforward, although his undergraduate experience has been anything but. Over the past three and a half years, he has declared more than 10 majors, including English, film studies, biomedical engineering, and business. He planned to pursue a career in medical research until he worked in scientific research labs, which convinced him otherwise. “I’ve worked in several research labs since high school,” says Ng, “and the real world experience one day made me realize that the science was interesting to me, but the process became less and less so.” In choosing a career path, Ng says, “Mark Matheson was very insightful—he encouraged me to ‘go with my instincts.’ This advice was rare to me, as many people question my differing interests and somewhat discourage my decisions.” Ng has hopes of using his science background in a career utilizing an interdisciplinary take on law.

Jonathan Ng

Mortazavi, a Salt Lake City native, began his studies as a political science major and expects to graduate in that field. He too once had his eye on law school, but along the way he also considered medical school—for a while. Like Ng, after working in a campus lab, he decided that it was not for him. Involvement in the Sigma Chi fraternity led to a leadership role in student government. A career as an elected official seemed alluring, until he tried it out through an internship in Washington, D.C. “I’d talk to the congressmen, and they would tell me how hard they would work and then have to go home and beg for money. They would never see their families. I decided, ‘No way am I going to make that my life.’ ”

“Many of us,” says Gwinn, “started on a specific path and then encountered something that sparked indecision and changed our path. It’s better to experience this now than 20 years from now.”

Gwinn’s path has been fueled by a passion she found at an early age as she watched her father struggle with cancer. “Ever since I was 8,” she says, “I wanted to be a doctor.” She was admitted to 12 different universities, “seven with full rides,” but chose the U to be closer to her dad and the Huntsman Cancer Institute. She started volunteering at Huntsman and now assists in research to find better drug-delivery mechanisms to kill cancer cells.

Gwinn’s indecision arose when she began to think that she could accomplish more as a researcher than as a doctor. Through a mentor, Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs David Pershing, she learned of an M.D./Ph.D. program that offered financial incentives to ease the debt load at the other end. “I enjoy the research people who are creating,” she says. “They are doing good [for patients by] finding cures.”

Adopting a MUSE

Masoud Mortazavi

After several months of study and many meetings with Matheson and Locher, the interns put their own signatures on the initiative: they changed its name. Based on their own experiences, they saw that transformation is highly personal and cannot be imposed. “It’s nothing that can be thrust upon you,” says Mortazavi. The idea, adds Gwinn, is to allow students “to choose their own opportunities, as you do in life.”

According to the interns, the concept of a blank canvas kept coming up, along with the idea that you make of it what you choose and adopt a muse—that is, someone or something that inspires creativity. “With the word being the basis for ‘music,’ it evokes originality and uniqueness,” explains Gwinn. “It encapsulates the emotional sense, passion, and personality—who you are. It’s empowering,” says Gwinn. MUSE as an acronym for the new U program stands for “My U Signature Experience.”

Matheson and Locher describe the students’ input as “invaluable and inspiring.” “As an advisor,” says Matheson, “I’ve talked with many students who aren’t sure about what their life’s work will be. Students tend to get alienated from their deeper interests by consumerism and by our far too hectic pace of life. We need to help them reconnect with their own inner passion.”

And what about student loans? “I don’t think passion and practicality exclude each other,” says Matheson. “Students can be pragmatic and at the same time driven by idealism and the desire to be productive in ways that help their fellow human beings.”

The second step in implementing the initiative is to support a student-centered culture at the U in both teaching and service. The first of these will be the focus of the campus-wide MUSE teaching summit this April, which will be followed by a student-service summit next year. “The idea,” explains Matheson, “is that all interactions between our staff and our students can be actively educational, with the campus a place of continuous and ubiquitous learning.”

Even the campus-as-workplace, which employs 7,500 students this year—1,500 more than last year—will become a place of learning.

“Everyone on campus becomes a teacher,” says President Young. “A supervisor in food services teaches student workers team building, and an office manager teaches conflict resolution.”

Hitting the Ground Running

Matheson and Locher are busy working to “scale up” the many opportunities on campus and off, with the goal of providing at least one opportunity to every U of U undergraduate in the areas of study abroad, undergraduate research, professional internships, and community outreach, including funding.

This spring, new students are learning of the MUSE project during the orientation process, from advisors, and through student-led projects. Current students can expect classroom presentations, a MUSE office in the Olpin Union, and information from faculty.

Tolstoy said, “One can live magnificently in this world if one knows how to work, and how to love, to work for the person one loves, and to love one’s work.” The MUSE project’s true effectiveness may be measurable 10, 20, or 30 years from now, when rather than burn out in their chosen professions, alumni can’t imagine leaving them. In the short term, however, the U may consider setting up a virtual wall on which graduating students inscribe their farewell signatures.

When Faculty Make a Difference

Michael K. Young, President, University of Utah

During his sophomore year of college, Michael Young had been sitting at the very back of the class when, to his shock, the professor called him into his office. The professor convinced Young that, based on the papers he had turned in, he “had a capacity for real analytical thought.” A few years later, when Young was in law school, a professor insisted that students not simply understand the judge’s reasoning in a case, but criticize it. “When I saw how deeply you had to drill down intellectually, it was terrifying,” says Young. “I studied out of sheer panic, but I awoke one morning realizing I was exhilarated by it. I found I had a passion for unraveling things.”

These experiences were transformative in setting Young on his career path as a legal scholar.

Jennifer Williams Molock, U of U assistant vice president for Student Equity & Diversity

Molock, too, discovered her passion thanks to a professor’s belief in her. Molock had been a star high school student but had a dismal first semester of college. The director of her college’s Office of Black Student Services, who met with every African-American student, asked her, simply, “What’s going on?” “She told me she knew I could do better,” says Molock. “She began challenging me in ways I hadn’t been challenged before. And she told me to start identifying what I am passionate about.” Mainly through work experiences while in school, Molock found her passion in higher education. Understandably, Molock believes in the power of mentors. “I had a lot of people supporting me,” she says. “If I hadn’t, I would have given up.”

Gretchen Dietrich, executive director of the U’s Museum of Fine Arts

Dietrich was a sophomore business major when she took a class in Renaissance art history. As she learned about the Italian Renaissance, she thought, “This is the coolest thing that anyone has ever talked about! That was it for me. I thought my head was going to explode,” says Dietrich. Intrigued, she changed her major to art history. Internships during college convinced her she did not want to sell art, and a semester in Paris taught her she belonged in a museum. She found museum education through a job at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “I was passionate about art, and I became passionate about making art in the museum accessible to the broadest segment of the public,” Dietrich says, adding, “Art is about knowing about the world, the history of the world, and your place in the world.”


Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program
Students who participate in research with a professor may earn stipends of up to $1,200.

Capstone Projects
The Honors College and many other University programs and disciplines require seniors to complete a Capstone Project, an extended research paper that prepares them for careers or for graduate work in their respective disciplines at a research university.

Honors College Think Tanks
Students spend a year collaborating with community partners on topics of social importance, such as immigration, religion, or bioethics.

Hinckley Institute of Politics
The Hinckley Institute of Politics places more than 300 students each year in local, state, national, and international internships with government and nonprofit organizations.

The Bennion Center
Through the center, students select community service projects in the areas of education, health, and the environment, among many others. Each year, more than 8,500 Bennion Center volunteers give about 175,000 hours of community service.

The Learning, Engagement, Achievement, and Progress program encourages the formation of a learning community by allowing students and professors to remain together through multiple semesters.

University Impact Fund
A student-run venture capital fund investing in start-up companies.

Study Abroad
More than 600 U of U students in 2009-10 studied in 39 countries.

On-Campus Employment Resources:

—Susan Vogel is a freelance writer and publisher based in Salt Lake City.

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