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For undergraduates, their aspirations are especially impressive, striving not to merely graduate, but one day to have a title such as Supreme Court Justice or US Surgeon General. In their pursuit of such lofty goals they chose Pitt. Whether or not they made the right choice is illustrated by the recently released Middle States university accreditation report.

Changing Direction

Sally Ann Flecker

Some things are written in stone—Brooke Sealy’s name, for instance. At last spring’s Honors Convocation, when her name was called as co-winner of the Omicron Delta Kappa Senior of the Year Award, it wasn’t a complete surprise. She had known that she was in serious consideration for perhaps the most prestigious award given to a graduating student.

Throughout her four years at Pitt, Sealy’s interests had led her to bank an impressive array of leadership and extracurricular activities: a Pitt Pathfinder since freshman year (and director of recruitment, hiring, and training last year), service on student government’s multicultural and judicial committees, volunteer work with the American Civil Liberties Union following a junior year internship, and work as a teaching assistant for a section of Freshman Studies. That’s just for starters.

Still, the award didn’t feel quite real. After the ceremony was over, one of her best friends talked her into checking out the walkway between the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel, where her name would eventually be carved in a limestone block. The two women walked along, looking down at the names that had been added every year since 1922. It’s pretty prestigious company. Her heart jumped as she recognized her own name. The block, it seems, had been set in place even as the honor was being conferred.

A few months later, she’s more used to the fact that scores of people walk past her name every day. But when her mother asked her to take a photo of the stone to show it off at a summer graduation party back home in Irondequoit, New York, Sealy snuck out to the Cathedral lawn at first light, camera in hand. Even then, embarrassed, she found herself looking over her shoulder to make sure no one caught her in the act.

Brooke Sealy
That’s about the only time Sealy’s looked over her shoulder; she usually has her eyes fixed firmly on where she’s headed. The Honors College, triple-major student (politics and philosophy; economics; and cultural diversity and race relations—the last a self-designed, interdisciplinary major that enabled her to take courses in Africana Studies, sociology, and religious studies) is a prime example of the kind of elite student increasingly attracted to the University of Pittsburgh. Between 1995 and 2001, as freshman applications nearly doubled from 7,825 to 15,438, admissions became much more selective. In 2001 Pitt’s acceptance rate was 60 percent. By comparison, in 1995, the rate had been 79 percent. Other telling figures are also on the rise. For instance, the number of students in the top 10 percent of their high school class soared from 21 to 37 percent. Sealy, who matriculated in 1998, was in the top two percent of her class—fourth out of 279.

She wants to be a civil-rights lawyer; she knew she wanted to go into law even before she started high school. Ask her where she wants to end up and she tells you: the Supreme Court. Of course, she’ll laugh when she says it, the cute, almost-innocent laugh that bubbles out of her when she’s caught up talking about her dreams. “It’s a big leap,” she’ll tell you, to offset the magnitude of her ambition. But don’t be mistaken; she’s not kidding. She’s been mapping out her career with the same degree of precision that she maps out her busy days.

“For me, it’s better to be busy,” she says. “I know that if I have a very little bit to do, chances are I might do nothing.” Her first stop is Columbia Law School this fall. (Columbia and Harvard both competed for her.) Then—in this order—she hopes to clerk for a federal judge, practice as a civil rights lawyer, and teach constitutional law. And finally, the membership in that elite club of nine. The ODK Walk of Honor might not be the last time that Sealy’s name is carved in stone.

There is no college-of-the-year award, but the glowing report—Pitt’s 10-year accreditation review—delivered recently by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education wasn’t a surprise, either. Like Sealy, the University earned the praise heaped on it the good old-fashioned way—by setting sights on goals and working toward attaining them.

Citing “extraordinary accomplishments,” the Middle States report noted, in particular, the improved academic standing of undergraduates, enhanced undergraduate campus life and support, the integration of academic planning and budgetary planning, and strengthened city and Commonwealth relationships.

In fact, Pitt’s “extraordinary accomplishments” are legion—from the development of significant majors in emerging fields such as molecular biology, environmental studies, scientific computing, and bioengineering to myriad cultural, leadership, and support programs designed to integrate freshmen into the campus community and help them through that all-important and vulnerable first year; from new facilities including the Sennott Square classroom building and the Petersen Events Center to the vigorous cultural and athletic programs that take their cue from Pitt’s “The city is our campus” campaign.

(And Pitt provides the wheels to make that possible by contracting with the Port Authority to allow students to ride buses anywhere in the city by showing their ID cards.)

At the University’s Board of Trustees meeting held not long after the release of the Middle States report, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg made particular note of the findings when he talked about the “remarkable progress of Pitt.”

The picture wasn’t quite so rosy a mere seven years ago. An internal study was commissioned by the Board of Trustees in fall 1995 after several rocky years that included the retirement of long-time President Wesley W. Posvar and the short-lived chancellorship of J. Dennis O’Connor. The Fisher Report, as it became known, painted a less than flattering portrait, calling for Pitt to address weaknesses in a variety of areas, including undergraduate education, admissions standards, and leadership.

By the time the report was released in January 1996, leadership at the University had already begun to stabilize. Nordenberg, Distinguished Service Professor of Law and former dean of the law school, had been named interim chancellor a few months earlier. (Trustees would install him as chancellor months later.) James V. Maher, former physics department chair, had been provost for slightly more than one year.

“I’ve been on the faculty since 1970,” says Maher. “So the Fisher Report, when it arrived, was no surprise to me. There had been many things at the University that were very well tended. But there were some serious problems, particularly with the way the undergraduate programs were handled. And even though I didn’t agree with all aspects of the Fisher Report, I did think that the issues that it raised were, in the main, serious issues that we needed to attend to. And we did set about attending to them.”

Indeed, the 2002 Middle States report noted the firm and steady course that the new leaders set: “The Chancellor and Provost form a solid team in their leadership of the University of Pittsburgh. They set a tone of cooperation among all the University’s leaders that is enviable.”

Maher talks about the challenges of the last six-plus years with the air of a man who likes thinking through a problem and who finds great satisfaction in his work. “It’s been an exciting exercise to try to understand the overall needs of the University—how to break them down into digestible pieces and then pose them as a challenge to the relevant unit and create an environment in which the faculty who are involved can address the issues and solve the problems,” he says. “The Chancellor and I have had a lot of fun working on this over these years.”

Myrtle Shock
Myrtle Shock pulls out a box of unmatched pots and pans that wouldn’t look out of place at a garage sale. She points to an array of other items—fiberglass lunch trays, a garden hose—that are sitting in no discernible order on the counters and floor of an anthropology department lab in David Lawrence Hall. She’s in charge of assembling the supplies that a group of 18 undergrads, two teaching assistants, and anthropology prof Kathleen Allen will need for Pitt’s upcoming six-week-long archaeological field school.

Once at the field camp, Shock’s responsibilities as a teaching assistant will be mostly of a higher order, putting to use the experience she’s gleaned from her past two summers hunting and recording petroglyphs in the high desert ranges of eastern Oregon. (Her study of the petroglyphs, which are rock carvings, resulted in the thesis for her Bachelor of Philosophy degree—or “B Phil” as the Honors College students call it for short.)

Shock started imagining herself as an archaeologist at the age of four. In third grade she remembers writing a report on the roadways and suspension bridges of the Incas. This summer’s work in the Finger Lakes area of central New York, on a mid-1500s Iroquois village, including excavation of a long house, feeds into Shock’s interest in settlement systems and the movement of people over a region. She calls herself a “self-starter.” For the Pitt field school experience, she’s read up on lithics (stone tools), devouring everything in the literature that Allen suggested. Allen, who urged Shock to apply for the USX/Toretti Undergraduate Research Award for summer research, calls Shock “impressive.”

“A lot of what you do in archaeology you have to be meticulous about because you’re destroying data as you’re digging,” says Allen, who usually takes grad students as TAs for the field school. (Shock is a senior.) “You need to get the exact provenience, and make sure that the provenience stays with items all the way through. Myrtle is conscientious and careful. She’s committed, serious, and very bright. I think faculty wait for someone like Myrtle to come along.”

It’s no accident that Shock “came along.” She applied to six colleges, mostly prestigious liberal arts schools. Pitt was, she says, the big school that she didn’t know much about. A Chancellor’s Scholarship tempted her. But the deciding factor was a phone interview with Honors College officials.

“They sounded like they wanted me personally,” says the native of tiny Ontario, Oregon. “They knew everything I’d done. They didn’t just ask general questions. They were very pointed. They wanted to know what research I would want to do. There was an attitude that they supported undergrad research. That really made me feel more comfortable coming to a large institution.”

Merrian Brooks
While Shock is at archaeological field school, Merrian Brooks, a summer Honors College Brackenridge Fellow, takes her place at the bench in Susan Gilbert’s cell biology lab, where she’s hard at work learning crucial lab techniques. By the end of the first month, she’ll have started work on her research project investigating the motor protein kinesin.

Gilbert, an associate professor of biology, has Brooks and two other undergraduates in her lab this year in addition to four grad students. She says there are real opportunities here for undergraduates to do meaningful research.

“You have nationally-ranked, nationally-recognized research programs going on, so that means the funding is here, and the scientists are here that do competitive research,” she says. At the same time, biology and chemistry majors, for instance, number in the hundreds rather than the thousands that they do at some larger schools. “That means that any student here that really wants to work in a lab can work in a lab.”

Gilbert, who takes her role as a mentor very seriously, selects projects for her students that will lead, over time, to work that they can present at a national meeting as well as publish. “For an undergraduate to publish a paper as a first author,” says Gilbert, “that’s pretty significant.” Gilbert should know. She’s already mentored two students who have published the research they did in her lab. One is now doing graduate work at Harvard, the other’s at MIT.

Every week, all the members of Gilbert’s lab get together for a meeting. One week, a student will present the work that he or she’s done in the lab in the last month. Another week, they’ll discuss an article that’s been published in a relevant research journal.

“You go through the paper, figure by figure, so you can understand the experiments,” says Gilbert. “Also, you work through it as a group so that the more junior people are learning about technique, how each experiment was done, whether it was performed properly, and whether the results support the author’s interpretation.”

“Today we did a paper and at the beginning, Merrian said, ‘I just want to ask one thing.’ Her question in essence said, ‘I don’t understand how the experiments addressed the question that the authors were trying to conclude.’ Now you have to understand that Merrian has done very little lab work; she’s just beginning to learn about molecular motors. But she nailed it, which meant that she had spent an incredible amount of time on that paper and is really thinking.”

The opportunity to do research—“real research,” says Brooks, who was 10th out of 493 in her class in Annapolis, Maryland, “not one of those ‘kind-of’ research opportunities where you go into a lab and do all of their dirty work”—was what convinced her, like Shock, to come to Pitt.

At the time, she lacked enthusiasm for the decision, even though she knew it was a good one. Her heart had been set on the University of Pennsylvania since she was a sophomore in high school. But Pitt made her a better offer, with more hands-on opportunities. Now, with her freshman year under her belt, you wouldn’t know that Pitt wasn’t her original “dream school.” In fact, these days she’s one of Pitt’s biggest cheerleaders—that is, when she’s not busy being a referee.

“I wanted to do new things and try different things,” she says of her first year. First semester she took a one-credit physical education class in football officiating. After class time in the basics, the students were turned loose to ref intramural games. At first, Brooks was worried about whether the players would yell at her if she told them they were offside, or even pay attention to the flags dropped by a 5’4” female. By the end of the tournament it was a different story. Some of the guys would try to skirt one of her rulings by flirting. “‘Look at that gorgeous ref,’ they’d say. I’d say, ‘Okay, okay. You were still holding.’” Some of her classmates didn’t like to blow the whistle. Not Brooks. “I had no shame,” she laughs. “Any violation I saw—it was all about the whistle.”

Brooks didn’t need to read the Middle States report to appreciate that, at Pitt, education is larger than the classroom. The University has cultivated a campus environment with a multitude of social and cultural experiences and activities. Brooks’ explorations didn’t stop with football. Calling this a “year of revelations,” she discovered what she calls a newfound love—dance, including African traditional dancing.

“Pittsburgh does a lot for me—this town-like city. I feel safe,” she says. “I’ve been to so many ballets through PittArts that I couldn’t even tell you.” She also worked stage crew for the Kuntu Repertory Theatre. “I never really understood how everything comes together and how in a show it all has to go boom, boom, boom,” she says. “And by the time you do all those rehearsals and shows together, you become like a family. The company I worked for had a lot of different age groups. I got a little homesick first semester, and it was nice to be able to have an aunt-like figure talking to me about the things that were going on with my life.

“That’s another thing about all these social things,” Brooks adds. “They’re so much more than what they seem. You make a lot of friends, get a lot of bonds. You don’t know what it’s going to turn into later in life.” In the meantime, Brooks has already planned the next 12 years or so. She’s downright gleeful about the course of study she’s settled on—a dual major in molecular biology and in history and philosophy of science (HPS), with a minor in neuroscience.

“I have a lot of aspirations,” she says—an understatement. “I want to do an MD, PhD and be a physician-scientist. I hope to do that in neuroscience. I want to be a brain surgeon and make innovations in science at the same time.”

Her ambition doesn’t stop there. She hopes to become the Surgeon General. “That’s the main reason for my HPS major. I want to know all the ins and outs of science and ethics.”

College right now to Brooks is a joyride; the world is brimming with possibility. “There are so many things to be exposed to,” she says. “I had a really great year.”

Sally Ann Flecker is a freelance writer and former editor in chief of this magazine.

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