Seven Ursinus students are charged with connecting the heady questions of humanity to students’ everyday lives. For them, even the most typical experience can seem like a revelation.
Consider Emily Black and the New York City subway. “It sounds silly that riding a subway would have an impact on me, but given that I had never been on a subway before this trip, it was a brand new experience,” she said. “That is really one of the main aspects of Common Intellectual Experience, new experiences. Whether it is learning to look at things in a different way, understanding something more fully, or having new experiences, CIE is all about challenging the boundaries of your comfort zone.”
The Common Intellectual Experience, a required course at Ursinus College, uses readings and discussion to guide freshmen in wrestling with the questions: What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? What is the universe and what is our place in it? The periodic excursions, dubbed CIE in the City, are connected to a Mellon Grant that established a joint program with Columbia University to explore and strengthen each college’s core curricula. The grant also allows for Fellows, who guide freshman CIE students.
The trips seemed to confirm that the CIE is relevant outside of the classroom. “Throughout the entire day, it felt as though everything we did was CIE-related,” said Black, a Fellow. “I think that this just goes to show how much the concepts of CIE can be seen in our everyday lives. We stumbled into a restaurant for lunch that just happened to be all about Frederick Douglass and had quotes all over the walls.”
Each Ursinus incoming class reads “The Epic of Gilgamesh” over the summer and continues with CIE readings from Plato, Dante, Galileo, Frederick Douglass and others – readings that are the same for all students but discussed in small groups. The discussions challenge some long-held beliefs, paving the way for the critical thinking skills inherent in a liberal arts education.
The Mellon-CIE Junior Fellows act as a guide to first-year students, and try to make connections between the material and their own experiences through discussion, events and the New York City trips.
For first-year student Kelly Cohen, who went along on the trip, it was the spontaneous wandering that had the biggest impact on her. “I saw a lot of the city that I’ve never seen before,” she said. “We met some really awesome people, including a chess player named Cornbread, and we watched many street performers share their talents with the crowds of Washington Square Park.”
The Highline, a former elevated track now turned into a landscaped walkway, provided more “CIE moments,” as first-year student Elana Roadcloud said. “Our walk down the Highline allowed us to see the city from a different point of view. Instead of a busy city, we saw a beautiful city,” she said. “I asked myself why I have never seen the city the way I was seeing it today and the truth was, I was too busy. Too busy to stop and look around, truly taking in the wonderful life and sights around me.”
Fellow Jonnie Handschin recalled a “moment of clarity” during such a trip. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it— shoes sitting on a folding chair in a bright room somewhere in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I don’t generally subscribe to kismet but here in this room with 10 people, most of whom were strangers to me mere months ago, I felt a flicker of communion. This is what the CIE Fellows program is all about—integration, applicability, intention.”
The bright room was a Hindu worship center that the Fellows visited “seeking not only Bhagavad Gita insights but an authentic experience that corresponded to the text,” she explained. “I remember the excitement when we first received word of the Mellon grant but after visiting Columbia and New York, the possibilities are looking promising if not endless. During our visit, it wasn’t as though were looking for the CIE texts, it was as if they were finding us (in art galleries, falafel shops and cafes names after famous abolitionists). That’s how it’s supposed to happen, CIE is supposed to jump off of the page, we are indescribably excited to see what the experience could do for students.”
The Fellows developed ideas for teaching incoming freshman. Riley Acton suggested returning to the Hindu community center “and talk with their leader some more – about the Bhagavad Gita and about the central questions to CIE.” The Highline, she said, “is a great example of creating something out of nothing and could tie in nicely with the nature conservation themes they read about in the romantic poetry unit.” A trip to the World Trade Center would resonate with the texts by Martin Luther King, John Locke and the Declaration of Independence,” she said.
Thinking about, “How should we live our lives?,” Kelly Cohen looked to the artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art who followed their passions. “When Edgar Degas made the sculpture ‘Little Dancer of Fourteen Years,’ critics disliked it and Degas was too embarrassed to show any more of his sculptures afterwards. But he continued to sculpt, despite the critics distaste for his style, and after his death his sculptures became widely accepted and famous. He continued to do what he loved even if the public didn’t like it at the time, and in the end his work gained the recognition it deserved.”
Just as the class itself helps students to get to know themselves, the trips helped the Fellows do the same. “Though I was well beyond the strong and safe walls of my comfort zone for the entire day, I had an amazing time in New York,” said Emily Black. “There is not a doubt in my mind that the entire trip was CIE-related in almost every aspect. This was true on a personal level as well. I feel as though I learned more about myself and the benefits of looking beyond my small and narrow way of life in that one day, than I have in 19 years of my life. “
Riley Acton 2015
The Mathematics and Business and Economics double major is a member of the women’s gymnastics team. She hopes to pursue a career in economics or research.
Ronak Darij 2013
Edgewater Park, N.J.
An English and Politics major, Ronak is interested in good books, movies, music and current events. His post-graduate plans include law school.
Anthony Sierzega 2015
A Politics and History double major, Anthony is a sprinter on the track team. He is a Philadelphia sports fan with an eye on law school.
Brian Kennedy 2015
Cliffside Park, N.J.
The International Relations and Politics major also studies Arabic. He hopes to work in a non-government organization, establishing emergency response systems in developing nations. He enjoys SCUBA diving, camping and British television.
Jessica Neuman 2013
An English major with a minor in Gender and Women’s Studies, Jessica is a Resident Advisor, Mellon student consultant, peer advocate, EcoRep, and UCARE intern. She is president of the English honor society, community service chair for the women’s honor society, and active in clubs. She enjoys biking and falafel.
Jonnie Handschin 2014
Majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Anthropology, Jonnie enjoys reading, traveling, playing music and the outdoors. She is a student assistant at the Berman Museum of Art and a member of Tau Sigma Gamma sorority.
Emily Black 2015
The Neuroscience and Music double major is interested in a Chemistry minor as well. She plays the flute, saxophone and guitar and participates in the wind ensemble and jazz band. Her research interest is in the brain and music.