Peer Review

Becoming a Scholar

A scholar is a trusted and accomplished expert, a creator of knowledge who can integrate disparate data and concepts to innovate and reach new conclusions. But how does one become a scholar? And why do we need them?

Naturally, these were not questions that had crossed my mind as I entered college. Like many first-generation students, I came to higher education on a nontraditional path without a map. But for me, this journey ended with far more than a degree; it culminated in an identity that integrated my life experiences and culture with the confidence and skillset of a scholar.

I did not always understand my “undergraduate experience” as a single, cohesive entity. By the end of my third year—my first year at an urban university following community college—I had grown tremendously and often extolled the value of college to my friends and family. However, I certainly didn’t understand how what I experienced would fit into my future as a professional or citizen. I, like so many underserved students before me, felt like an impostor. In fact, my own insecurity about belonging in academia fueled my determination to achieve, to memorize, and to know. I still lacked the courage to take the next step to integrate, to create, or to innovate.

The catalyst that changed this mindset came from two connected learning experiences: my undergraduate research experience and my senior capstone. Both were concerned with medieval works of art or writing, and both were facilitated by the same dedicated professor, Anne McClanan. More substantively, both were opportunities that shifted my position from passive knowledge bank to knowledge producer.

My undergraduate research traversed the humanities and social sciences; I delved into art history, medieval history and government, historiography, hagiography, theology, and mosaic-making. I read, synthesized, analyzed, wrote, revised, and started over again. Less than a year later, my senior capstone course, a combined research and service-learning curriculum, pushed my critical thinking and entrepreneurialism to the next level. My charge was to uncover the origin and cultural significance of two medieval objects to enrich their value to the community and contribute to a growing public repository of local artifacts.

As a result of these connected experiences, I integrated and fortified a range of skills and disciplinary knowledge to solve problems for which there was no answer at the back of a book. Engaging in integrative learning taught me to see my own generative potential. Somewhere in the course of expending tremendous intellectual and emotional energy to complete these tasks, I had become more than a good pupil or star test-taker: I had become a scholar. I had reached new and original conclusions, and done so with the mentoring necessary to feel confident in my expertise. In doing so I learned there was nothing about me—my gender, my ethnicity, my class, my educational path—that prevented me from adding another layer to my identity: that of innovator, professional, or scholar. The confidence and entrepreneurship associated with this revelation has translated directly to my capacity as a professional.

Years later, working as a professional in higher education, I see how urgently our collective future needs a daring cohort of scholars to rise out of every neighborhood, culture, and class in order to reenergize the fatigue of our planet and our communities. We need to believe it is possible to empower students from every background, educational path, and level of preparedness to do more than know or learn, but to become the creator and the questioner, to know and accept themselves as scholars who can and must answer the big questions in both their civic and professional lives. And the sooner, the better.

Heather McCambly is a program associate in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success at AAC&U.

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