Although the Pathfinder Program was officially founded in the early 2000s, it can trace its origins back to 1995, when Ray Arvidson took over a freshman seminar on environmental science and decided to focus more on actual environmental case studies rather than reading from the textbook. His approach struck a chord with his students, who persuaded him to organize a group field trip for spring break. Because Dr. Arvidson, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences, was working with NASA and the jet propulsion labs in Pasadena, they went to the Mohave and studied land use there. When the students decided they wanted to keep going, Dr. Arvidson organized a trip to Hawai’i, where he’d been doing some work as well. Dr. Arvidson ran his class like this for several years before it became its current formalized iteration: an intensive program for eighteen students interested in environmental issues. Dr. Arvidson serves as his students’ freshman adviser and their four-year adviser. (He says he set the class size at eighteen because that’s how many students you “can fit in three vans.”)
Pathfinder is a one-and-a-half year program, including a writing course taught by an environmentalist, sometimes with a senior capstone trip. It’s called “pathfinder” because, as Dr. Arvidson says, “It’s a way to find your path through a research university. These eighteen students have at least three courses together in the fall: they become social friends, and they become academic support friends. Even the best students academically sometimes have a difficult transition from high school to college.”
Besides fulfilling an IQ integration (WashU’s term for courses meant to complement at student’ manor) and jumpstarting students’ adjustment to their new “high-powered” environment, Dr. Arvidson says the course instills a mode of problem-solving, “an ability to attack problems using diverse directions and skills they build up in their majors, all while folding in the revelations that problems tend to be multi-variant. In order to solve them you can’t just use biology or geology. We encourage a combination of approaches.” This is the philosophy behind the courses’ reliance on case studies as well, starting with Mono Lake in Northern California, due east of San Francisco. “It’s all about approaching things from different disciplines,” says Dr. Arvidson. “What’s really neat is that the students come with drastically different interests and perspectives. As they begin to take courses and develop their skills, they bring those skills back into our classes and our discussions.”
In addition to hands-on research and business experiences, WashU has a vibrant co-op program that gives students authentic career experiences. Offered to students of the School of Engineering & Applied Students, the Engineering Co-op Program places students with employers for full-time work that lasts at least a semester and a summer, but could last for a full academic year if a student wants to continue. To complete the program, students take time off from their academic course load. At work they are assigned entry-level duties and paid a salary. Cheryl Perlmutter, who completed her co-op experience at Boeing, tells us that the hiring process was “a mini version of what seniors have to go through when they’re looking for full-time employment. You had to interview just like it was a normal job to get a position.” Once there, Cheryl explains, “I definitely got to directly apply the things I learned with CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and design at Boeing, and saw how it was really done in the real world.” After completing her co-op at Boeing, Cheryl was hired there full time. Cheryl tells the story: “Basically, it’s hard to get hired at Boeing from the outside. But once you make it through that as a co-op, they have a career fair with all the different departments who want to hire co-ops full-time. I really hit it off with the hiring manager. I had some special skills that he was looking for that actually WashU incorporated into their curriculum. It was really directly related to something that I had learned at WashU.”
Real world experiences are, of course, not exclusive to the co-op program. For example, Dr. Ron Cytron, professor of computer science and engineering, explains, “Our discipline is all about the engineering of software in context, so we take lots of problems from the real world, and almost all of our students have internships that develop that sense of practice in computer science. Our university has a nice push toward the entrepreneurial, which interests many of our students.”
There are over 700 different entrepreneurship programs in the United States. But only a handful of universities offer students the ability to operate businesses with allocated, subsidized storefront locations. The Washington University Student Entrepreneurial Program, or StEP, provides a unique opportunity for students to own and operate a business on campus. They take what they are learning in their classes and apply it to a real business venture. WashU gives student business owners a leg up by giving them access to university mailing lists, web space, and mentorship from an advisory board of local business owners and WashU faculty. A loan fund even allows students to borrow the capital to get up and running or to purchase a business already established on campus. Eight businesses on campus run the gamut from a bike rental and repair shop to a water delivery service (and there’s always the option to propose a new business idea to the board).
Many of the faculty feel that their “real teaching happens outside the classroom, when [we] interact with students in labs, office hours, and in research. Most of us are also involved with students as advisers, faculty mentors/associates in the dorms.” Professor Cytron states emphatically that “we [the faculty] are partners in their education.” The alumnae we talked to spoke highly of the guidance they received from faculty mentors. Alumna Nicole Kaplan, founding president of Telesto LLC, a Florida-based consultancy, admits that when enrolled at WashU as a first-year coming off of a career-ending gymnastics injury, she was a bit out to sea. “I got to school and had no idea. I had no particular academic interests.” She tells us: “I got really lucky in that the course in macroeconomics I took was taught by a fellow named Laurence Meyer, who was a professor at the university, and ran a firm where he advised Wall Street firms and other entities.” Professor Meyer went on to become a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Kaplan found she had a talent for economics and continued taking courses with Professor Meyer. She says, “He basically became fairly critical in all of this—he was very much a mentor. I interned at his forecasting firm. I was the teaching assistant for his macroeconomics class my junior and senior year. And he was my thesis adviser. So I think that when you look at college experiences, you can’t get a better story than that.” When Kaplan, a former Director on Wall Street, began the job hunt her senior year, Professor Meyer guided her toward finance and counseled her through the intense recruitment process. She credits Professor Meyer with giving her the academic and professional opportunities that laid the foundation for her career in finance and investment banking and adds that this is “a very real dynamic at WashU. With mentorship from world-respected professors, students go on to notable careers.” Similarly, alumna and chemical engineer Melissa Holtmeyer, who received her bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees from WashU, tells us, “I went into college wanting to design cars. I haven’t lost that dream, but since leaving WashU I have worked at the intersection of science, technology and policy for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Department of Defense. These positions never crossed my mind when I first started college. Good professors and great advisers that supported me helped me figure out a fit for my skills and led to me where I am today.”