Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning

Listening to Students

Intellectual Entrepreneurship: Improving Education and Increasing Diversity

by Ana Lucía Hurtado
January/February 2007

An undergraduate's determined quest for her "calling" leads her to an internship that asked what she wanted to learn

The lack of diversity in graduate programs is a national crisis. A May 2005 report issued by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation indicated that, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up 32 percent of all U.S. citizens in the normal age range of Ph.D. candidates, only seven percent of all doctoral recipients are black or Latino. In the words of Robert Weisbuch, the foundation's president, "The numbers make it clear: We still have a great expertise gap in the United States. Our next generation of college students will include dramatically more students of color, but their teachers will remain overwhelmingly white."

One thing is evident: Traditional methods of recruiting minorities into graduate programs just aren't working well enough. Universities often try to remedy this situation by tinkering with recruitment strategies. But this neglects a major cause of the problem: Undergraduates are not being given sufficient opportunities to explore graduate study in ways that resonate with their personal and intellectual interests and commitments. This may be particularly important for minority students, whose career choices often are driven by a desire to give back to their communities.

Some argue that internships and career counseling meet this need. But these often come too late in the curriculum and are viewed by many students and professors as non-academic and secondary to scholarship and study. Maybe we need to start thinking outside the box. Why should education be limited to textbooks and lectures? Why must experiential learning and career exploration be viewed as less intellectual than academic knowledge?

As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to connect my personal, intellectual, and career interests. Through the University of Texas at Austin's Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) initiative, I was given the chance to be a "citizen-scholar"--to own my education and discover how to leverage knowledge for social good. By sharing my experience, I hope to stimulate changes in undergraduate education elsewhere that will result in more opportunities like this one--opportunities that will increase both quality and diversity in higher education.

When I was four years old, my parents decided to leave our home country, Peru, amidst overwhelming turmoil caused by the Shining Path Maoist guerrillas. Although it was a painful sacrifice on their part, they wanted their three daughters to succeed in the United States, this "land of opportunity."

In school, I studied hard and always pushed myself to be a top achiever, believing this would ultimately secure me a fulfilled life. However, near the end of high school, I grew nervous about finding the "right" career for me. I began exploring engineering and medicine via several structured programs.During my sophomore and junior year summers, I went to Stanford and did research with a civil engineering professor through the NASA Sharp Plus Program, was chosen to participate in Baylor Medical School's Doc-Prep Program (where I saw open-heart surgery and helped dissect a human cadaver), and was chosen to attend MIT's Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITE2S) Program, where I took Advanced Physics, Biochemistry, Calculus II and III, Robotics, and Entrepreneurship courses.Furthermore, my high school itself was a magnet school for health and science, so throughout my senior year, I participated in the medical-rotations course where I shadowed local physicians in several medical areas and specialties.

However, I remained unconvinced, and even when having to choose which university to attend, my uncertainty greatly influenced the outcome.I had applied to 12 universities, hoping that some might offer me scholarships since my middle-class parents had sent my sisters to Harvard and Rice.Fortunately, not only did all 12 accept me, but 10 of them also offered me full-tuition merit scholarships. Although I felt very blessed, my two favorite scholarship programs made me face my uncertainty once again.I was torn between Rice University's Rice-Baylor Scholarship and Duke University's Robertson Scholarship.The Rice-Baylor Scholarship promised automatic admission into Baylor Medical School after graduating from Rice, while Duke's Roberston Scholarship encouraged service, leadership, and cultural exploration with fully-funded summers where I would create my own service projects and immerse myself in another country's culture. Ultimately, because of my inability to commit myself to a medical career, I chose Duke University, hoping it would give me the time I needed to keep exploring my career options.

While at Duke University, however, I retreated into a state of despair, believing I might never find my vocation. I continued with my pre-med track, as was expected of me--my oldest sister was already a top physician in her specialty, and my middle sister was finishing medical school. I probably would have become a physician too had I not confronted the greatest challenge of my life: becoming a mother. Facing an unintended pregnancy, I felt I could no longer approach my future passively--not only did my life depend on it, but also my son's life. The search to find my "calling" resumed in earnest, and I began exploring different possibilities, including a career in law.

After deciding to leave Duke University, since my son was living with my parents in Texas, I transferred to UT-Austin.While there, I stumbled upon an unusual curricular offering: the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Graduate School Internship. This class was unlike anything I had encountered before. It was a largely self-directed internship, contrasting significantly with my other college courses delivered in the traditional didactic fashion, where knowledge is spoon-fed to students.

Unlike other internships offered for course credit, the program isn't merely an "applied" or "work" experience where students "just do it."It also offers a space where students can reflect on their experiences, discovering how everything fits together with their unique personal commitments and intellectual ambitions. For the first time in college, I immersed myself in a real-world setting as an anthropologist would, studying myself, my knowledge, and the career I envisioned.

The site of my internship was the Children's Rights Clinic at the UT law school. Through it, I was allowed an insider's look at law. In collaboration with two faculty supervisors and a graduate student mentor, I was able to create the most enriching experience possible while carefully planning a schedule with my supervisors that would optimize my exposure to a balanced overview of family law. For the first time, my "teachers" asked me what I wanted to learn--what I wanted to get out of the experience. For the first time, I asked questions for which I genuinely sought answers, and I directed my own course of study. For instance, in my very first meeting with my supervising attorneys, they asked me what kinds of things I was interested in being exposed to.I told them that I not only wanted to be exposed to the obvious law-related activities (like hearings and mediations) but that I also wanted to be a part of the behind-the-scenes work involved in the cases.Therefore, throughout my internship, I accompanied the attorneys to court hearings and mediations, visited their clients with them, participated in Permanency Planning Team (PPT) meetings at CPS, listened in on phone conferences, helped with the research for some cases, and filed court documents.Each week, I met with my supervisors, and they would list the activities I could take part in.Each week, I told them exactly what it was I wanted to spend my time doing, observing, and learning about. The internship was a perfect blend of academic give and take, as I eagerly took what I thought were the best learning opportunities being offered to me, while they graciously gave what they felt would be the most worthwhile family-law experiences Ultimately, the internship proved to be the most valuable educational experience of my college tenure.

The reason I chose to explore law through my IE internship was because I felt I hadn't given it a fair chance, especially because I had always thought my talents would lend themselves well to a career in law. In high school, I had competed extensively in debate, extemporaneous speaking, and persuasive speaking and had come to love rhetoric and argument. I would catch myself thinking about how I might enjoy being a lawyer but would quickly abandon the idea.The problem lay in my conception of what a lawyer was.Somewhere between being a little girl and growing into a young woman, I had painted a picture of lawyers as dishonest, unethical, self-serving, and money-grubbing people who never had time for their families and didn't really care about helping others. Therefore, in retrospect, one of the most important aspects of the internship was that it dispelled many myths I believed about the legal profession. Through extensive interaction with my two supervising attorneys, both of whom are highly respected lawyers and dedicated mothers, I learned that being a good lawyer and a good mother were not mutually exclusive. For instance, one of my supervising attorneys had just returned from a 3-year leave of absence to care for her newborn twins.Her way of balancing law and motherhood was that she had strategically worked a few years after receiving her JD in order to establish a good reputation and then took some time off to have and take care of her children.Additionally, because she wanted to continue being involved in their upbringing, she planned on working part-time for a while until her children were older.

Additionally, both of my supervising attorneys were great examples of how being an ethical lawyer is not an oxymoron but a choice. They were involved in service projects within the community, had dedicated much time and energy to social justice issues (especially domestic violence), and were practicing participants of their faiths. Lastly, the Children's Rights Clinic introduced me to a legal setting where superfluous billing was not practiced and where legal services were not reserved for only the most affluent and privileged clients. By bringing together my personal, academic, and professional interests, the internship helped me discover and own my education.

After enrolling at UT, I learned that the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program attracts a disproportionate number of first-generation college students and students from under-represented minority groups. Students with those backgrounds make up nearly half of the IE interns. This is hardly surprising since IE empowers students to make connections between their academic interests and real-world concerns--something especially important to first-generation and underrepresented minority students who want to contribute to their communities.

The philosophy of the program shows promise as an approach to increasing the number of persons of color who attend graduate school. In the words of IE director and founder, Professor Richard Cherwitz, "The spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship seems to resonate with and meet a felt need of minority and first-generation students, who acquire through it the resources needed to bring their own visions to fruition."

Based on my experience, I hope educational administrators will expand the opportunities, such as the IE internships, for students to learn beyond classroom walls.The IE internship has enabled me to face the world, diploma in hand, with a sense of direction and purpose. With my son now a bit older, I plan to attend law school next year and am in the process of applying to Cornell, UT-Austin, Buffalo, Southern Methodist University, and Houston, all of which are in strategic places where I would have a strong support system from family and friends.In the meantime, I'm working as a Science teacher and am helping my son master his ABCs, phonics, and counting skills before entering kindergarten.Needless to say, I will be saving as much money as I can for the upcoming 3-year long journey ahead in law school. My ultimate dream is to work with a family law non-profit for a number of years and then becoming a clinical professor of law at a major law school, not unlike my supervising attorneys.This dream, of course, will not be deterred by my other, equally strong, desire: to have more children and be a loving wife and mother.Who knows, maybe one day the Children's Rights Clinic will see me again, but this time, I'd be guiding a new generation of IE interns.

Ana Lucia Hurtado received her B.A. in psychology and communication from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006.Information on the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium can be found at