Thursday, December 22, 2011

Kevin Gaughan, Fulbright scholar

Alumnus Kevin Gaughan sends this reflection about how WestConn helped to prepare him to be a Fulbright scholar in Estonia :

"About a week ago, an old friend contacted me to say congratulations on receiving the Fulbright scholarship to Estonia. We both grew up in New Fairfield, so when he realized that the last four years of my life were spent at Western Connecticut State University he was stunned that such a prestigious award was granted to one of its students. He was even more surprised when I told him that I was the third student in three years to receive the award. After all, WestConn had always been perceived as the token 'fallback' option among our high school class. It turns out that my buddy failed to realize something, though—something that I only came to understand after becoming a student at the university: WestConn is Connecticut’s best-kept secret.

"So what exactly is it that makes WCSU 'Connecticut’s best-kept secret?' The answer lies in WestConn’s commitment to a principle that many universities have long since forgotten--that higher education should first and foremost be student-focused. Whereas an overwhelming amount of universities continue to clinch firmly to the idea that producing 'scholarly research' is the primary function of higher education, WestConn has repeatedly challenged those norms. It has recognized that equal importance needs to be placed on helping students develop the interpersonal and analytical skills necessary to become contributing members of society.

"When I reflect upon my years as both an undergraduate in Political Science and a graduate student in History, I feel fortunate to have been part of a university that espouses such a student-focused philosophy. For instance, I remember when Dr. Kukk and Dr. Wilcox championed the benefits of an interdisciplinary education and sought to give their students the opportunity to realize these benefits. With the support of President Schmotter and Dean of Arts and Sciences Dr. Abbey Zink, they allowed students to tailor their own curriculums to meet their various needs and interests. As such, they opened the door for students to take a more active role in their education.

"Giving students the flexibility to create their own educational experience seems like a rather simple idea, doesn’t it? Not only is it simple, it’s empowering, for it implicitly tells students that they have control over what they choose to learn. And yet even today, some of the world’s leading universities resist this structural change.

"Another notable example of WestConn’s commitment to its students is the Roger Sherman Debate Society. Eight years ago, a group of students wanted to prove to both themselves and the university that they could compete intellectually with some of the best schools in the country. In pursuit of this goal, they launched WCSU’s first debate team. After being given financial and administrative support from two professors at the university, the newly formed debate team has since been generously funded by the School of Arts and Sciences and, as a result, it has grown into a nationally recognized program. During the Spring 2011 semester, for instance, two members of the team, Ben Allen and Ben Townsend, placed among the top 20 speakers in the country at the JV/Novice National Tournament in Towson, Maryland. This marked a significant milestone not just for the debate team but also for the university as a whole, since it highlighted the level of academic talent that WestConn students can demonstrate.

"WCSU’s student-focused philosophy goes beyond the classroom in other ways as well. For example, my classmates and I were frequently given the opportunity to participate in educational trips to New York City, where we met with prominent United Nations officials and discussed important global concerns. I can only speak for myself, but these experiences were invaluable to my academic development, for they not only gave me multiple perspectives on a given issue, they also further instilled in me the idea that WestConn students were smart enough to take part in such important international discussions.

"While the examples above provide a glimpse into the myriad opportunities for academic and personal development that WestConn students have at their disposal, they are remiss in capturing the premier quality of professors that the university has to offer. For instance, Dr. Kukk is a former research fellow at Harvard University; Dr. Wilcox received his PhD from Cornell; Dr. Duffy graduated with a PhD in history from New York University; and Dr. Knudsen recently graduated with a PhD from Yale. There are many others who contribute to WestConn’s long list of accomplished faculty as well, which makes me feel as though I received an education far more valuable than what most other small state universities can provide.

"Therefore, I just wanted to thank the School of Arts of Sciences, and Western Connecticut State University as a whole, for such a wonderful educational experience during the last four years. When I look back on my time at WCSU, I feel as though I have been given the opportunity to be part of something truly great--something that people are going to look back upon and say with admiration, 'wow, I really wish I was a part of that.' I will forever be one of the university’s biggest fans, and I look forward to the day when I no longer have to describe Western as 'Connecticut’s best kept secret' but rather as the definition it truly deserves: An Ivy League education within the walls of a state university."

Thanks, Kevin, for sharing your experiences with us.  We're all very proud of you.