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Davis, California

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Professors as pals


Faculty-student relationships can prove mutually beneficial

In effort to get to know her upper division French students, professor Claire Goldstein  invited her class for lemonade and a game of boules, a French game similar to bocce. As the students engaged in cultural activities, Goldstein got the opportunity to interact with them outside of the classroom, and she thoroughly enjoyed their conversations.

“I like to know what [students are] doing, […] what they’re interested in and their experiences,” Goldstein said. “I get some of my best ideas about teaching from really hearing what students are [saying and] their perspectives.”

From organizing committees, to having meals, to casually chatting, many UC Davis faculty members are making the effort to connect with their students.

One program on campus that tries to foster such connections is the Entrée to Education (E2E) program, planned by Student Housing, which invites a faculty member to eat a free meal with up to 10 students in the dining hall of their choice. Brandon Petitt, the director of the Office of Student Development, worked in a committee alongside students to create the program.

“[We were] looking at ways to engage students to ensure their success [by specifically engaging] students with faculty on campus,” Petitt said. “One key idea was [for students and faculty to] have a meal together. Where we finally landed was on the Entrée to Education program.”

For the last two years, the E2E program has been providing students with dining hall access the opportunity to dine with faculty. Carolyn Thomas, professor of American Studies and Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education, recently participated in the program and said that, although mostly just resident advisors (RAs) joined her, it was a worthwhile experience.  

“It went well,” Thomas said. “There were mostly RAs who were there when I went [and] we talked about housing, […] what the experience is for students who are RAs and how much they enjoy working with first year students. We also talked about their classes [and] concerns that they had.”

Thomas said she was so impressed with the RAs who showed up to eat with her that she invited them to join her advisory board one RA took her up on the offer which, she said, “was a really nice outcome.” Thomas’ advisory board is a diverse group of about 10 students which meet with her once a quarter to talk about concerns or ideas about undergraduate education. Goldstein explained exactly what a faculty member can get out of prioritizing active outreach.

“[I get to learn about] what [students] want to know, what they want to understand [and] what they think they understand about what’s happening,” Goldstein said. “It’s good for [students] to have the opportunity to meet faculty in [informal] situations.”

After Jasneek Attwal,  a fourth-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major, invited her chemistry professor to attend the annual Prytanean Women’s Honor Society’s Dinner for Ten event — in which students of the society bring one faculty member of their choosing to a large dinner — she said she was both excited and nervous.  

“He said yes and [the dinner] was wonderful,” Attwal said. “They sat us with people from different departments, even Prytanean alumnae, and we had one of the coolest conversations ever. It expanded from bees, to biochemistry, to mosquitoes, to politics, to different types of law it was really fun. And I definitely had a [closer] relationship with my professor after.”

Both Attwal, who serves as the treasurer for the Prytanean Women’s Honor Society, and Sheila Kulkarni, a third-year chemistry major who serves as the historian, will help organize the Dinner for Ten this year. Both Attwal and Kulkarni said they feel fostering student and faculty relationships outside the classroom is important for both parties.

“[Building connections] really enriches the educational experience for both students and teachers,” Kulkarni said. “It’s difficult for teachers to understand how students absorb knowledge, so getting to know your students as people, getting to understand how they learn, who they are as students and as people is very important in helping [faculty] teach and interact with their students on a very human level.”

Some faculty members are even willing to live in close proximity with students. Petitt acknowledged landscape architecture professor David de la Peña who, alongside his family, lives in Primero Grove. De la Peña explains that meeting with his neighbors in an informal setting is what helps him get to know them the best.

“I am there to help students connect with faculty in a comfortable setting,” de la Peña said in an e-mail interview. “Last week, we served churros and Mexican hot chocolate and chatted with a dozen or so students about moving to Davis about good places to hike and about study abroad. It can be hard for students sometimes to connect with all of the things happening on campus, so it’s fun to see them get engaged and contribute their energy.”

Student-faculty interactions can be mutually beneficial for both parties involved. Thomas said she encourages students to involve themselves in events which connect them to faculty because it helps to make students “more active in class” as well as more confident to approach professors about their work outside of the classroom. Additionally, she encourages faculty to do the same.

“Coming into Segundo [Dining Commons] and sitting down over a meal […] is very different [than the classroom],” Thomas said. “It makes us better teachers when we really take time to get to know our students as people.”

When students and faculty take the time to get to know each other, the results can be emboldening to everyone involved.

“Teaching […] is a collaborative experience that is born out of a relationship that involves trust and a mutual interest,” Goldstein said. “I really love getting to talk to UC Davis students in a non-classroom setting. I love hearing [about] all the rich things they’re up to, and thinking about and involved in. It’s really inspiring for me, and I’m happy to teach here.”


Written by: Hannah Holzer — features@theaggie.org


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