ISPs prompt students to learn more about their passions and create connections

Whether students are in their first or third years at New College, the Independent Study Project (ISP) that occurs during January is an important and sometimes challenging thing to approach. Since ISP has the potential for such a broad range of exploration, and can be done with a group, as an individual, off-campus or as an internship or job, it is important to find the time to plan the course of study during the second module of fall term.

“ISP is a really critical part of the New College curriculum because it fosters independent study,” New College President Donal O’Shea said.

Last school year, there was talk of changing the placement of ISP within the school calendar. O’Shea felt that having ISP in May could be a good shift for a multitude of reasons: it could give first year students more time to settle into the pace of a college environment, it could give students a better start with finding summer jobs and it could line up better with the nine-month pay contracts that professors have.

“There isn’t any danger of ISP going away or moving in the calendar anytime soon,” O’Shea said. “The arguments against are valid. It would be very hard to make the switch from one thing to another. People get used to it and like that they have such a long break. I worry that it affects retention.”

Thesis student Sara Friend recommends group ISPs for first years who are unsure of what kind of independent research they are interested in.

“My first ISP I decided I was going to teach myself astrochemistry when I only had general chemistry under my belt,” Friend shared. “That just wasn’t feasible, and that’s okay, but I should’ve done a group thing and not had to try and direct my whole month all by myself.”

Friend appreciates group ISPs because they create guidance and structure. From her perspective, it can be beneficial to have help with putting together a syllabus and figuring out the way ISP works. For students who are preparing for thesis year, she recommends having an ISP that relates to the thesis process.

Third-year Ormond Derrick’s favorite part of ISP is the freedom to be able to research and study just about anything. Derrick likes having control over the research projects and interests that he explores.

“While that is a blessing, it can also be a curse for a lot of students, like it was first year with me,” Derrick said in an email interview. “It was more of a ‘great, how exactly do I find or do these things?’ We need something like an ISP-mentorship group with students and professors.”

Derrick has done two off-campus politically-oriented ISPs: one with a group who met with different members of Congress and lobbying groups after the 2016 election and another branching off of anti-human trafficking research he did with the United Nations (UN), thanks to the support of Professor of Sociology Sarah Hernandez. He plans to study abroad during the summer of 2019 as an additional ISP credit. For those interested in a similar path, Derrick recommends talking to Assistant Director of Off-Campus Study and Study Abroad Florence Zamsky to make sure an ISP credit can be obtained.

“As far as financial support, I’d say look at the Council for Academic Affairs (CAA)/Student Travel Research Grant (STRG),” Derrick stated. “The CAA funded almost the entire ISP I did my first year and it was incredible, especially being a poor, first generation college student. Having these resources made my education and ISP so accessible which was important to me and is important to other students like me.”

This coming ISP, second-year Joey Daniels is going to The Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, a monastery in Salem, France, that Daniels referenced as one of the leading places to study Gregorian chant.

“I got the idea from third-year Max Kucera and Professor [of History and Medieval and Renaissance Studies Thomas] McCarthy is sponsoring it,” Daniels stated. “It’s really great to immerse yourself in a subject for a month. You can get a lot of educational value out of it.”

Students have the freedom to mold their independent study to explore anything they are fascinated by, as long as they find faculty support. Second-year Emily Schenck did a group ISP last year where they did research and went on a period-accurate 1840s fur-trapping camping trip. Thesis student Erika Johnson received STRG funding to go to a research lab at the University of Valladolid in Spain, aided by advisor guidance from Professor of Chemistry Steven Shipman. Second-year Anna Lynn Winfrey made bread during all of last January.

“There was a chemistry group during my second year that just made all different kinds of cheese, and during their presentation we ate it,” Friend recalled. “So it can be fun but also academic. It can be personal but also academic. It can be going to visit your family. There are so many options.”

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