New idea sparks concern

The news about the Rensselaer Summer Arch program, which will require all rising juniors to take summer classes followed by spending one of their junior year semesters off-campus, concerns me, an alumnus who wants to see her alma mater succeed.

Encouraging students to get internships, go on co-op, study abroad, and participate in their local community is a great idea. My issue is that this program will be mandatory starting with the Class of 2021, and I can see potential roadblocks for many students. Students come to Rensselaer for many different reasons and have many different needs, some which would be better suited spending their summer elsewhere. Listed below are my concerns.

Financial Aid. Some RPI students rely on financial aid to attend. Currently, students must apply to use federal financial aid during summer, and this takes away a semester of eligibility. RPI grants are not available during summer. It would be useful for students to know how this will work; there is currently nothing available online about this. My own experience was that I was always dangerously low on funds by the time the spring semester finished; I needed to work full-time during summer to be able to pay my tuition and other expenses during the following year. Monetary reasons would also make it difficult for most students to spend a semester doing unpaid community service.

Students who must take extra credits. For one reason or another, some students have to take extra credits to graduate on time. The summer term is currently capped to 12 credit hours, unlike fall and spring semesters, which are each capped at 21 credits. Students in certain dual majors must take extra credits to graduate on time. Students who have switched majors (nationwide, 80 percent of college students change their major at least once) may also have to take extra classes to catch up, or they may have to take different courses from their cohort. Additionally, students sometimes take time off for personal reasons, such as family or illness, and many programs already make it difficult for them to not graduate any later. Students might also wish to graduate early or to get a coterminal degree, and therefore want to take more classes or be ahead of their program. Many of the coterminal students who I’ve known have been able to graduate in eight or nine semesters either through Advanced Placement courses and/or taking additional credits.

Course Intensity. RPI is not an easy school. A full-time internship or research program is less time-intensive than a regular RPI semester. Students use the summers to relax and breathe before another intense academic year; even those taking classes currently generally take fewer credits. Assuming the academic semesters remain unchanged, a rising junior will either have classes from late August to early August with one month break, or even late August to December of the next year with only a one-month break and a two week break. Unless RPI’s intensity decreases, students will probably burn out—I know I would have. Summers for me were also a time to get outdoors and meet others in my community and explore the local area, all of which is hard to do if you are focusing on coursework.

Club and Greek Life leadership. Many club presidents and Greek Life officers are juniors. Typically, from what I saw during my eight consecutive semesters as a club officer, freshmen would join several clubs and take a lower-level officer position their sophomore year. By senior year, students are focusing on their senior thesis, project, or lab class and finding a full-time job or applying to graduate schools and have less time for club leadership. Gaining leadership skills through clubs and Greek Life is very useful for getting a job; additionally, both are a fundamental part of the RPI experience for many students.

Research. Students hoping to go to graduate school or medical school are going to want to get research. There are many great research programs only offered over the summer, including the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates. My own NSF REU was very helpful in developing professional and research skills, as well as allowing me to experience a different college and its professors and learning environment. There was a rising junior in my program, and some of the rising seniors had done an REU the previous summer as well. Additionally, these students would want to get part-time research during the academic semesters, which would be hard during a jam-packed summer. I was part of several RPI research groups and enjoyed the experience and mentorship I got from working with upperclass and graduate students.

Program Compatibility. Some degree programs are more compatible to Summer Arch. Engineering programs, for example, might be best suited, although I have heard students and alumni in some majors saying that the timing still would not work for them. Architecture students must already take a jam-packed schedule to graduate in time; additionally, the School of Architecture offers several semester abroad programs as well as a semester program at the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology in New York City. Science and social science students who are planning to go to graduate school are probably best served by research, discussed above.

Air Conditioning. Only a few of RPI’s residence halls have air conditioning. Troy summers are hot and humid. Most of RPI’s classrooms do not have air conditioning, either. Already, there are dozens of summer camps and conferences occurring during summer; if the entire rising junior class is on campus as well, how will everyone fit?

Suggestions. There are better ways to promote diversity, real work experience, and community service than the Summer Arch program, mostly using RPI’s existing resources. Surely, the following suggestions that I have listed below would be easier to implement and yet achieve the same goals. Additionally, offering Summer Arch as an optional program would probably work fine; some students would certainly find it advantageous.
Offer languages. Studying a language will help students learn and appreciate diversity. Students may also find themselves being comfortable studying abroad if they are able to learn the language first.

Offer resources for study abroad programs. I know one of the reasons why I didn’t study abroad was lack of funding and especially lack of being able to find information on how to study abroad on my very limited budget. Providing funding and resources on how to obtain funding may encourage students to study abroad. Additionally, more schools/departments should have study-abroad programs like the School of Architecture does to help ensure that students get their credits and do not fall behind.

Recommend that students take a co-op, summer internship, or a part-time job during the semester to enhance work experience and employability. Students should definitely be taking advantage of employment opportunities during college. Even work-study or retail jobs can be useful, as they teach the student how to be reliable, deal with people, and otherwise be a good employee. Additionally, I know several people who had a part-time job during their last semester or two in their field. The timing of these jobs should be up to the student and what makes sense for their academic and career goals.

Expand the Public Service Internship program. Offer several sections of STSH/STSS 4800 each semester, and recommend that students take it. The Public Service Internship is a great way to learn how you can apply your skills to the real world—and help others in the process!

It is true that other colleges have similar programs to RPI’s new Summer Arch, but these colleges are also fundamentally different from Rensselaer. For example, Dartmouth has a required summer program for rising juniors, but the academic year is divided up into four 10-week quarters. This means that students simply swap which quarter they take off. Additionally, Dartmouth allows students to take their quarter away during any fall, winter, or spring quarter their sophomore or junior year, allowing more choice and for students to the best option for their individual academic and career plans. Dartmouth also has funded programs (research, community service) for students during their semester away. Unless Rensselaer were to fundamentally change its academic system, it is hard to see how Summer Arch would have the same success.

As an alumna, I worry that a mandatory Summer Arch would fundamentally change Rensselaer’s academics and student life, the very flavor that makes RPI RPI. Students who wanted to get certain things out of their education would choose to go to other colleges rather than be part of a mandatory Summer Arch. Personally, I chose to apply to RPI rather than Cal Poly where I would have been a legacy student because I felt that RPI focused more on research and learning as opposed to just getting a job. I believe, and from my own experience this is true, that focusing on research and learning will help you get a job and an enjoyable one at that.