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Adrienne Langlois '10: More UTRAs, please

When we, as college students, go home for spring break (or, if we're lucky enough to be going somewhere exciting, when we call home) we're likely to be asked one terrifying question: "What are you doing this summer?"

With an ever-increasing number of summer internships and jobs to choose from, increasing competition for them and a seemingly dwindling funding pool, the question of summer work can be a scary one indeed.

Luckily, as Brown students, we have a few unique opportunities at our purveyance, most notably the UTRA program. The Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards offer students the opportunity to pursue collaborative projects in research or course design with professors — and receive $3,000 for a summer of work. Sounds like a dream, right?

As the old adage goes, "Nice work if you can get it." Each year, the UTRA program offers around 200 summer grants to students. The Office of the Dean of the College also funds a smaller number of grants for projects during the fall and spring semesters. While the program is no small shakes (200 is a pretty large number, all things considered), UTRAs have grown considerably in popularity, with the number of applications exceeding the available grants every year. As a result, many projects go unfunded.

The obvious solution would be to expand the program, but this, too, is easier said than done. Unfortunately, the University announced in February that due to economic pressures, it would be unable to expand the UTRA program this year.

It's a catch-22. As paid internships become fewer and further between in our currently weakened economy, more and more students turn to University-funded programs for summer work. At the same time, however, the economic recession prevents the University from expanding the program for its increased numbers of applicants.

UTRA decisions were released last week, and as expected, the program was forced to reject many worthy projects, as it always does. Rejection from the UTRA program puts both professors and students in an awkward situation. Because of the University's fiscal situation, professors may be unable to fund important projects without UTRA funds, and the late rejection date puts students in a disadvantaged position to apply for other funds or search for other summer opportunities.

Obviously, being rejected for an UTRA grant is not the end of the world. But the flexible, collaborative nature of this program deserves more fiscal attention for the ways in which it has transformed and continues to enrich the Brown community.

The UTRA program provides undergraduate students from all disciplines with the valuable and unique opportunity to explore intensive research in an academic field. Lab work and independent study projects are the only comparable experiences the University currently offers, but neither of these programs are as accessible to students in all fields as UTRAs.

More broadly, UTRAs promote a level of collaboration between professors and students not possible within the classroom. While working on an UTRA grant, students have the opportunity to do research and receive critique and guidance from a professor without being graded. In doing so, the student forges a strong relationship with a professor in an academic field he or she cares about, providing him or her with an academic touchstone and a potential source of recommendations and advice for graduate school or other career opportunities.

Most importantly, the UTRA program not only enriches the academic community at Brown through faculty-student collaboration — it also improves it. Many UTRA projects focus on designing courses, Web sites and other teaching aids, and improving or revising other Brown programs. Still others allow students and professors to connect with Providence through research in the local community, or build contacts abroad through international research projects.

I understand that the financial crisis has necessitated funding freezes for many worthy programs. However, given the extraordinary benefits of UTRAs, the University should return to prioritizing this program when funding becomes available.

While we wait for the economy to recover, there is still a possibility for expansion of the program. Currently, the UTRA program has over 20 named grants generously made possible by University alums. More donations from alumni could sponsor additional grants.

I would like to echo The Herald's recent editorial encouraging alums to support the Brown Internship Award Program ("Building BIAP," Feb. 10): Not all of the most valuable experiences in a student's academic career occur within the classroom. Alums looking to make a donation to a particularly worthy program at Brown should consider the UTRA program.

The University is already doing a good job making the UTRA program available to students. Expanding the program to serve as many willing collaborators as possible will enrich the University community, and give students a great answer to the question of what they will be doing with their summers.

Adrienne Langlois '10 was rejected for an UTRA last year and had a great summer anyway.


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