Temple Times Online Edition
    September 28, 2006
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Temple alumna goes back to school, reconnects with students

Most students enroll in college for a specific reason. They might need to earn a degree in order to be accepted for a job, or they might just want to get away from home and experience college life. The author of My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by

Cathy Small
Photo courtesy Cathy Small

Becoming a Student enrolled in college for a very different reason. Cathy Small, an anthropology professor at Northern Arizona University, became a freshman for one year to get to know her students better.

“Undergraduate [students] were no longer recognizable to me,” Small said. “I was baffled as to why my students weren’t doing the reading I assigned and only concerned with what’s going to be on the test. They weren’t interested in learning for the sake of learning.”

The 52-year-old professor decided to conduct her study of college student life as a student by applying to the university where she is a faculty member, paying tuition, taking courses and living in a dorm. She played the student role for a year, and the experience was successful  — opening her eyes to the pressures and demands students face today.

Small, who received her doctorate in anthropology from Temple in 1987, said the inside look at student life will be an eye-opener to some and not surprising to others. But it is a current look — one she believes educators can learn from and that could give rise to some needed change in colleges.

That’s why Small is hitting the road, to share her findings with other universities across the nation. One of the first stops on her tour was Temple­  — a place that she said she was proud to return to.

Cathy Small book cover

Writing under a pseudonym, Temple alumna and anthropology professor at Northern Arizona University Cathy Small chronicled her year as a freshman at NAU.

In fact, Small took two days out of her booked-solid schedule last week to talk with

Temple faculty, staff and small focus groups on what she learned and what common

myths about college students today don’t hold up. Small’s visit was sponsored by the Teaching and Learning Center, Human Resources and Student Affairs. Here’s some of what she shared:

  • Students today aren’t lazy, as they sometimes appear to be. Small said she learned the life of a student is difficult, even overwhelming at times. “Students today are busier and more stressed than ever before,” she said. “More kids are going to college than ever before; it’s not just the wealthy anymore. Because of this, they have to work and balance school.”
  • Diversity in admissions doesn’t lead to diverse interaction in social groups. Small found that most freshmen choose a group of two to six friends early in their first semester, and almost all pick a small network that look like themselves.
  • When a group of students were asked if they would leave college if the university gave them their degree right now, almost 80 percent answered “no.” “Students today really do want to learn and have that college experience,” she said.
  • Students today learn better with small-group discussions and interactive projects. “I’ve started to do some simulations in my classes and promote diversity by putting students into groups that I choose,” Small said. “Assigning the students to respond to discussion questions posted on the class Web site also allows them a way to get involved in the course.”

Small said that she was surprised how much students have changed since her college days in the 1970s, and that “the undercover study” helped her become a better professor.

“It made a huge difference in my life as a professor and I learned a lot about the pressures of being a student in today’s world. It’s tough,” Small said. “Even I couldn’t manage the work sometimes. I ended up with a lot of B’s.”


By Karen Shuey
For the Temple Times




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