Accept the Challenge: It's Up to You to Change the World

By Lisa Stein

Students new to the School of Education & Social Policy enjoy meeting one another at a dinner hosted by Dean Peterson at her home. Transfer student Eric Fingerman is pictured.
Photo by Jim Ziv

Fingerman gets advice from Susan Johnston, Advisor and coordinator of student programs.
Fingerman gets advice from Susan Johnston, Advisor and coordinator of student programs.
Photo by Jim Ziv

Practicum students in San Fransisco take time out for sightseeing. Field studies director Dan Lewis is in the back row
Practicum students in San Francisco take time out for sightseeing. Field studies director Dan Lewis is in the back row.
Click on photo for larger image

Photo by David Bacon

Like many undergraduate students, Eric Fingerman had a hard time narrowing down his academic choices at Northwestern University. By his sophomore year he had explored majors in theater, biology, economics, psychology and philosophy — and his head was spinning.

"I was thinking about all my options," Fingerman recalls. "I obsessed and obsessed, and changed visions of my future at Northwestern a thousand times. My friends would ask, 'What major are you this week?' when my major was still 'undecided.'"

Although he had enrolled initially as a student in the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences (WCAS), Fingerman began to rethink that decision, too. "I remembered seeing the School of Education and Social Policy on Northwestern's application, and at the time it seemed a little offbeat," says Fingerman, a native of Montvale, New Jersey. "I had never seen the words 'social' and 'policy' side by side before. I thought it was mainly a School for teachers."

But Fingerman, like others before him, soon found out that SESP offers not only training for teachers, but also opportunities for a wide range of studies and experiences that extend beyond the classroom. A few of his friends who had majored in economics and social sciences transferred to SESP, and Fingerman considered the School afresh. The turning point came when he took Introduction to Social Policy taught by Jerome Stermer, executive director of the nonprofit agency Voices for Illinois Children. The course changed his mind about everything.

"The course really grabbed me," Fingerman says. "It covered what government can do to address problems of poverty and inequality. It sounded like my calling."

What struck Fingerman most about the course's subject matter was its grounding in real-world situations and problems. "I didn't realize that undergraduates would be studying current events. Other classes I had taken were a little too theoretical for me. In this class we studied welfare, child support, education policy and state governments. [These topics] just seemed more important."

Fingerman saw that this hands-on approach continues throughout SESP's curriculum and culminates in a required practicum that most students fulfill as juniors. "The real-world experience sounded really cool, and getting credit for it made it even better," he says.

The class also appealed to his strong desire to make a difference in the world. "The professor made us feel like we could change things. He would present a problem and say, 'It's your job to fix it.' It felt empowering and inspirational."

Another aspect of SESP that drew Fingerman was the School's small size and low student-faculty ratio. Each graduating class averages between 90 to 100 students, which fosters a sense of community and a nurturing yet challenging environment. "It's a warm, inviting place," Fingerman notes. "The students here are excited about the message 'It's up to you to make things different.'"

As a result of his positive experiences in SESP, Fingerman decided to transfer to the School. Before transfer students are accepted into SESP, however, they must go through a formal process designed to make sure the School's mission matches their own academic and personal goals.

According to Mark Hoffman, assistant dean of student affairs and adviser to social policy undergraduate students, "Our process is labor intensive, but the last thing I want is a student to transfer without having fully explored what we're about."

Transfers account for a substantial number of students graduating from SESP each year. "Usually we start out with about 35 students and by graduation the class has grown to 100," Hoffman says. "High school students don't know what SESP really is, whereas other schools such as journalism, music, engineering and liberal arts are pretty straightforward. They learn more about us once they get to Northwestern."

Students interested in transferring must attend an information session that provides an overview of the School's academic programs and curriculum. They learn about SESP's focus on two interdisciplinary areas - human development and social policy and learning sciences. Within these areas are four undergraduate majors: human development and psychological services, social policy, secondary teaching and learning and organizational change.

The curriculum offers students myriad combinations in which to study such subjects as organizational behavior and cutting-edge technologies in teaching, and a variety of educational and social programs, The School's 23 faculty members involve students in their area of research and are nationally and internationally renowned for their work in designing science and math curricula and conducting research on the effects of poverty.

After the information session, transfers attend a series of meetings with an adviser assigned according to the student's prospective academic major. Fingerman met with Hoffman to discuss his academic and career interests.

"Part of the first session is just getting to know the students — what interests them, how they learned about us, their short-term and long-term goals," Hoffman explains. "Some students have known since they were 7 that they wanted to help people in crises or be a teacher. Others don't have a specific plan, but know they want to make the world a better place."

Hoffman describes Fingerman as belonging to the latter group, "a student with a passion to help others but not exactly sure how to do it." The two then sat down and looked at Fingerman's current transcript to figure out how his WCAS credits could apply to the SESP degree requirements. Fortunately for Eric, many WCAS credits transferred into SESP credits, especially the School's basic requirements. The two mapped out a plan for his remaining time at Northwestern.

"The structure made it feel safe," Fingerman remarks. "It helped me see what the next couple of years would be like, where I was going, what I needed to graduate."

Hoffman gave Fingerman the tools to select pertinent classes each quarter. This fall his schedule includes a course called Voting Behavior and Public Opinion, which has proved timely and exciting given the presidential election. He's also taking American Political Institutions, Ethics and Buddhism.

He is leaning towards a major in social policy and continues to meet regularly with Hoffman for advice. "Eric likes to reflect before he makes a decision," observes Hoffman. "He's good at keeping in touch and actively asking for advice, which makes him a joy to advise."

Fingerman spent last summer working at the Institute for Policy Research. He helped Greg Duncan, the Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education, and Kathryn Edin, associate professor of sociology, sort through data from a national study investigating how low-income families adjust to life in middle-class neighborhoods. Soon Fingerman will be deciding where to complete his practicum - somewhere in San Francisco, Chicago or Washington, D.C.

Now that he has found the School and the path that's right for him, Fingerman can begin to think about life after graduation. At this point he's considering government, education, law and nonprofit organizations. Although Fingerman's career goals are open-ended, his main motivation remains constant. "We're all here to help each other. You can look at any job as helping people in some sort of way. SESP helps me understand the larger forces that result in different policies and how they affect day-to-day life."

Lisa Stein is a freelance writer.
By Lisa Stein