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Changing the Paradigm

Ingrained as it is in Willamette University culture today, undergraduate research was not always the norm, for Willamette or any other undergraduate institution.

When former CLA Dean Julie Carson came to Willamette in 1988, she saw an opportunity. During her 16-year tenure at the University of Minnesota before joining Willamette, she saw students—primarily graduate students—invited to join faculty research projects. “These were rare and valuable opportunities,” Carson recalls, “but to my mind they emphasized the secondary role undergraduates often play at large institutions.”

“I wanted students to have a truly rare opportunity, to have both the time and money to pursue an idea anywhere it led them.”

The learning environment at Willamette—with small classes, faculty deeply committed to students’ personal and professional success, and students “as bright and eager as any I had ever met”—inspired Carson to start an undergraduate research program that would turn the common paradigm on its head. “Ours would be a program wherein a student could ask a faculty member to join his or her research project, not the other way around. Then, as a team, they would seek funding from the University.”

But Carson believed there was another crucial element to the program’s success. “I wanted students to have a truly rare opportunity, to have both the time and money to pursue an idea anywhere it led them. No course requirements, no grade to worry about, no need to curtail an idea because of a need to work to support him or herself, plus the freedom to change directions as the research led one way or another.”

The Carson Undergraduate Research Program was founded in 1989 with a small grant from the Hewlett Foundation, and 15 student projects were funded.

News of the project reached Bill Long ’59, and he was impressed by the priority undergraduate research was being given. He and wife Kay designated $500,000 of the stock they were giving to the University to endow the program. “As a businessman and entrepreneur,” Long says, “I saw this as a seed investment. I knew I would get a big return—a disproportionately large return—on a relatively small investment. I knew the University was unlikely to be able to create a line item in the budget to sustain this type of activity, so I felt privileged to be there at the time funding was needed.” Carson and husband Guy Whitehead have since made the Carson Scholars program a beneficiary of their estate.

Sophomores and juniors can apply for the Carson Grant to undertake a scholarly, creative or professional research project during the summer, using the funds for travel, to purchase equipment or as a stipend to offset money they would normally earn from a summer job. Students must satisfy a rigorous application process, including a written grant proposal. Projects do not have to be related to the student’s major, nor do they receive academic credit, but all must be approved and endorsed by a faculty sponsor who oversees the project to completion and evaluates the finished work. Projects may be individual or collaborative and must lead to a definable outcome, such as a scholarly paper, a public presentation, performance or exhibit.

Seventeen years after its founding, the program has awarded grants to nearly 160 students. Here are the stories of three of our most recent Carson Scholars.