TAG, URGE grants help UCA students expand studies

Honors College students at the University of Central Arkansas, like most other students at UCA, have myriad opportunities to grow as students and humanitarians; however, two programs open only to Honors College students give them an extra nudge to reach their goals.

Travel Abroad Grants (TAG) and Undergraduate Research Grants in Education (URGE) “aim to enlarge the scope of undergraduate experience, to better prepare Honors College students for post-baccalaureate training and to make tangible international contact that now characterizes the globalization of intellectual labor,” according to Honors College Dean Dr. Rick Scott.

The programs also allow students to participate in programs, internships and research projects across the campus, which benefit faculty and programs in other UCA colleges and disciplines, Scott added.

Formalized in 1993, the travel abroad programs began earlier with endowments from the McCastlain, Shedler and Vail families. Financial support from the university allowed TAG to grow, and URGE to become an option for students.

Today, funds help support the endeavors of about 60 Honors students each year.

“Students receiving grants represent the breadth of the campus and often participate in summer programs offered by the UCA faculty,” Scott said.

The programs not only allow students to study culture and language, but sometimes set the stage for students to witness history. In 1989, UCA student Ed Tanguay was traveling to Germany using funds from endowments. During his time there, he saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the Cold War that had gripped the United States and Eastern Europe for many decades. Today, Tanguay lives in Berlin with his wife and daughters.

Scott said the grants are “transformative” for the approximately 900 students who have traveled, studied, researched and pursued internships because of TAG/URGE.

“Honors students gain confidence to compete, or compare themselves, with students from larger, more prestigious schools, and this increased confidence leads our students to apply and be accepted to better graduate and professional schools,” Scott stated.

When Isaac Jones used a $3,000 TAG award in 2010 to intern with Projects Abroad, a human rights organization that places students in volunteer positions worldwide, he already cared about social justice. But his experience with juveniles in the South African justice system gave him, for the first time, a practical outlet for his enthusiasm, and a first-hand look at the complex problems to be solved in a rapidly changing world.

He returned to campus eager to present a Soapbox (a voluntary Friday afternoon presentation) to educate his fellow students on what he had done and learned, and to motivate them to get involved. And his travel led directly to original research for his undergraduate Honors thesis on the role of non-governmental organizations in human rights monitoring.

Wilson Alobuia, who graduated last year, received an internship at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences through its Center for Diversity Affairs in 2009, thanks to the URGE program.

“I’d never been in a lab before but was fortunate to work with Dr. Alexei Basnakian, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology,” Alobuia said. “Dr. Basnakian had me collect data for research on human vascular endothelial cells. My work produced direct evidence about the role played by a DNA-degrading enzyme in cellular damage. I co-authored an abstract submitted to the Arkansas Biosciences Institute fall symposium, which led to publication of a full article in the American Journal of Physiology.”

The following summer, Alobuia, through the University of Alabama at Birmingham for International Health Research, worked with the Jamaican Ministry of Health, visiting various hospitals and interviewing patients and their families on their knowledge, attitudes and practices concerning vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever.

The next summer, Alobuia was selected to participate in the summer internship program at Johns Hopkins University.

“We found evidence that patients’ race and gender, underlying lung disease, and testing location impact our ability to interpret results of pulmonary function test quality, Alobuia said. “Being a member of the Honors College has enhanced my understanding of the importance of civic responsibility through research.”

To receive the grants, Honors College students submit applications, and grants are awarded based on the applications’ quality. Honors students can apply only after completing a full year of Honors College courses, and they must have a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or higher, Scott explained.

The application includes a narrative to explain the academic merit, impact of the experience, a plan for dissemination of what they learned, a budget, the itinerary and study plans, and the student’s vita or academic accomplishments.

It is scored with a rubric during two independent evaluations, one by the dean and the second by the associate dean, and then the award is administered by the Director of Student Engagement.

The grants themselves are the means, but what the students do with their opportunities shape their lives.

“Because they are deposited into unfamiliar cultures, social contexts, economic development levels and professional settings, grant recipients learn on their feet,” Scott said.

For more information, visit honors.uca.edu.