Making the most of a Notre Dame education

CUSE helps young scholars go beyond the classroom

The fundamental function of CUSE, the Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement, is “helping students maximize their undergraduate experience, with an eye to contributing to their post-baccalaureate success,” says Deb Rotman, Paul and Maureen Stefanick Faculty Director of the program.

CUSE, founded in 2009, provides undergraduates opportunities for research, scholarship and creative projects, as well as assisting with applications for prestigious national fellowships.

“There was a realization that institutions have the greatest fellowship success if they have a central group to facilitate and integrate across campus—a unit that accompanies and supports students throughout their educational journey,” says Rotman.

CUSE is unique in that the center works with students in all majors and across all colleges, including First Year of Studies.

The center focuses on three primary areas: scholarly engagement—offering opportunities outside the classroom through programs and events; undergraduate research—offering students across the University mentoring, advising and financial support for undergraduate research; and national fellowships— promoting opportunities for students to excel as applicants for nationally competitive awards.

In November 2014, Alex Coccia, a 2014 graduate, was selected to the American Rhodes Scholar Class of 2015. Coccia was selected from a pool of 877 national candidates who had been nominated by their colleges and universities. He is Notre Dame’s 15th Rhodes Scholar, and the first since 2002.

Says Rotman, “Alex did what we hope all students will do at Notre Dame. He took his learning experience beyond the classroom and took full advantage of all the resources available on campus to discern his path, cultivate his gifts and serve as a transformational leader.”

Coccia is currently a Truman-Albright Fellow in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. While at Notre Dame, he was a member of the Glynn Family Honors Program and majored in Africana Studies. In addition, he served as student body president.

CUSE helped support Coccia to teach fencing in Uganda. “That was an important part of his discernment of the path he would take as a student,” Rotman says. “He became interested in marginalized people and community dynamics. It cemented his interest in majoring in Africana Studies.”

Coccia’s involvement became a key part of his application for the $35,000 Truman-Albright Fellowship for those committed to a career in public service, she notes, and later his Fulbright application. He was assisted with both applications by CUSE.

The University is among the top producers of Fulbright students in the country, it was noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education in early February. Ten Notre Dame students have been awarded 2014- 2015 Fulbright grants, the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program.

Jeffrey Thibert, assistant director of fellowships at CUSE, says that the University’s inclusion on the list of top producers of Fulbright students “is a sign of our expanded commitment to internationalization, along with the important work of Notre Dame International and the units that will make up the Keough School of Global Affairs.”

Notre Dame students are especially competitive, he says, “not simply because so many engage with the world through coursework, but because of the depth of engagement that the University encourages. The Fulbright allows our students to take the international education they have begun at Notre Dame to another level, better preparing them to become representatives of the University on the international stage as they pursue their increasingly global careers.”

But what’s important to note, according to Thibert and Rotman is that CUSE is part of a Universitywide initiative, a campus network with all working toward the same goal: helping students maximize the opportunities available to them.

Thibert administers competitive national fellowship awards that require university endorsement, nomination or evaluation.

With Rhodes Scholarships, Thibert notes, the University must endorse every candidate, but there is no limit to the number of students who may apply. “CUSE administers the process through review and interview.” The Truman-Albright Fellowships require the University to nominate four candidates.

Darlene Hampton is assistant director of undergraduate research, another important part of CUSE’s mission. The center provides grant support for independent research, scholarship or creative endeavors— typically outside the framework of regular three- or four-credit courses.

Projects can include things that are not strictly speaking “research,” Rotman notes, include things that could turn into research down the road— developing an exhibition, attending a conference or visiting archives.

CUSE, which works with students both one-on-one and in small groups, offers a journal club and weekly workshops topics such as grant writing. The center also manages the Sorin Scholars program, an honor society for students who weren’t admitted to honors programs but excelled in their first year. Sorin Scholars receive support from the center in the form of mentorship and funding to help them develop their intellectual interests.

“We tell students, ‘come see us early and often.’ The goal is for students to become catalysts for their peers,” Rotman says. “Our goal is to energize the life of the campus by making students part of the intellectual life of the University, not just the social life.”

This story was originally published in NDWorks