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Aiming To Be a Small World After All: Cal’s Plan to Shrink a Big, ‘Impersonal’ Campus

May 2, 2014
by Shelby Pope

Peter Chernin loved his time as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. The media mogul—who served as president and chief operating officer of News Corp for more than a decade, and now owns his own media, technology and entertainment group—has attributed his success in part to the English degree he earned in 1974: To be a good leader, he’s said, you need empathy, and the best way to learn empathy is to study literature.

He encouraged his children to follow in his footsteps, and one of his sons did, but had the opposite experience: He hated Berkeley. The classes were too big. He had no contact with his professors. The atmosphere was so impersonal, he felt like he was just a number. Two years later, to his father’s dismay, he transferred to the University of Southern California.

The elder Chernin realized that there was no program that addressed the alienation his son felt, so in 2010, he made a nearly $1 million donation to create a pilot program in the English department that encouraged mentoring and peer relationships.

Next month marks the end of the first semester of Berkeley Connect, the evolution of that pilot program, now expanded to 10 majors. More than 1,100 students have enrolled in the program, which seeks to improve the undergraduate experience at Berkeley by replicating small classes and interpersonal dialogue characteristic of the small liberal arts college experience.

Undergraduates in the program attend small biweekly discussion groups with other students in their major, led by a graduate student mentor. The groups are relaxed, informal discussions, designed to go more in depth about basics of the major—and the college experience—that professors might gloss over: What exactly does it mean to do a close reading of a text? How do you properly analyze a proof? What should you say to your professors when you visit them during office hours? During the semester, the students meet periodically with their graduate student for individual mentoring on everything from homework help to resume advice to general life advice.  (The groups also offer the ultimate college kid bait: free food.)

In turn, the graduate students are mentored by a faculty member who guides them through the experience of teaching a smaller class, and creates the semester’s syllabus.

Throughout the semester, there are also career panels and field trips, giving the undergrads, graduate students and faculty even more chances to interact.  

“We’re the anti-MOOC,” says Berkeley Connect director and English professor Maura Nolan, referring to mass open online courses. “At the core of our philosophy is the idea that personal contact is essential to education—that education happens more effectively and people have a better experience when they have personal contact with the people who are teaching them and with other people who are learning with them.”

The program has evolved from its roots as the Chernin Mentoring Project, which began in 2010 with the hiring of Nolan to design the program with two other English professors, Kathleen Donegan and Eric Falci.

For seven semesters, the program—which Nolan partially based on a similar program at her alma mater Dukeremained in the English department, changing from semester to semester based on student feedback. (The program has no homework or tests, but participants are required to fill out the end of semester survey to receive the program’s one credit unit.)

When they were confident they had created a good working model, they enlisted the help of Hollywood to prove it: Chernin called in a favor with a friend from Screen Engine, a market research company that runs focus groups for Hollywood to survey students about their experience. The focus results were overwhelming: The friend told Chernin they were the most positive he had ever seen.

Armed with the research (and a video of students gushing about the program), Nolan and Chernin sold administrators on the idea of expanding to launch Berkeley Connect. And its emphasis is echoed by new Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who says one of his priorities is enhancing the college experience for Cal undergrads, and making sure they don’t slip through the cracks.

Jessica Paduganan

“I like the relaxed environment,” freshman Jessica Paduganan says of her experience in the program. “It’s totally stress free and it helps balance out my semester. Every [other] class is so formal, and you’re so stressed (but) you can come to this. It’s a moment where you’re forced to sit and relax.”

Freshman Dara Dan, who was inspired to double major after talking to his sociology mentor Graham Hill, says the experience is life-changing. “He’s very dedicated, he doesn’t have to do those things—sitting on a grass field, just listening. When I talked to Graham, that was the first time I had talked about my idea out loud to someone,” says Dan.

“That’s where I became very aware of the experience I want in college. (Berkeley Connect) introduced me to the field but it also introduced me to myself.”

Graduate students accepted into the program also benefit: they receive a year’s tuition and fee reimbursement along with a stipend to essentially do the fun parts of teaching: leading small classes (each is responsible for two classes of no more than 20 students) in spirited intellectual discourse with no grading or lesson planning.

But it’s not just less work, says environmental science Ph.D.student Misha Leong, who has been a graduate student instructor for other undergrad classes. “What I like about Berkeley Connect is that it’s been a chance for me to get to know the undergraduate students a lot more. I got to know everybody in my sections on a personal level, where they’re from, why they chose the major, and I was able to have those things in mind when we were in class and so we could structure the semester around what the students were really interested in.”

The graduate students also gain valuable work experience, says Eric Falci, Berkeley Connect’s English department faculty director. “It’s sometimes hard for Berkeley graduate students to get jobs at small elite private schools. (But) our fellows have gone on and gotten all these great jobs at Swarthmore, Bard. This whole set of jobs is opening up to the fellows.”

Berkeley Connect also has faculty enthusiasts. “The faculty are really excited about the program,” Nolan says. “It’s a frustration to us too, when we teach classes of over 100 students and you don’t get the chance to get to know anybody. We like students, and we’d like to get to know them better.”

Dara Dan

The biggest challenge now, says Nolan, is to keep up with demand from other departments. Berkeley Connect has a permanent spot in the UC budget to maintain the program indefinitely for the 10 departments currently participating, and Nolan is fundraising to expand.

The program also is reaching out to groups on campus that work with underserved students: first generation college students, women in STEM fields, and anybody else who might be lost at a school as huge as Berkeley, where introductory classes often have hundreds of students. During the last fall semester, there were 1,098 students enrolled in a beginning computer science course).

By placing students in situations where they already share common ground, and may find it easier to make friends, the program works to create an atmosphere that would have made Chernin’s son feel more comfortable at Berkeley years ago.

“Berkeley Connect says to students ‘No matter where you come from…you can make friends with people who are fascinated by math or sociology or English.’ It gives people the chance to develop a truly diverse group of friends based on their intellectual passion,” Nolan says. “That is at the heart of what we believe about higher education. The more contact you can establish between students and faculty but also students and students, the better the educational experience.”

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