Homer L. Dodge Award-winning professor urges Norwich University students to build networks, gather ideas

In collages, disparate pieces coalesce in a cohesive whole. Even things that may not seem to fit at first may piece together eventually. Norwich University Convocation speaker Dr. Tara Kulkarni encouraged the audience to imagine college as a collage. Instead of beads or paper scraps or found objects, the pieces in a learning collage are people, ideas and expertise and personalities. All commingle into a rich, varied education.

At Norwich University’s Convocation on Tuesday at Shapiro Field House, Kulkarni, an engineerinng professor in the College of Professional Schools, director of the Center for Global Resilience and Security, and the 2019 winner of the Homer L. Dodge Award for Excellence in Teaching, shared her favorite learning strategies and encouraged students to leverage the diversity of ideas and opportunities to learn all they can.

“I want you to see everything that you learn about as part of a collage ­— a jigsaw puzzle,” Kulkarni said to the capacity audience of students, faculty and staff, “where each piece offers new clues to the big picture, and where it is so much fun to hang out with a group of peers and try and figure things out.”

Better learning, she said, often starts with better focus, which may require pocketing the ubiquitous internet-connected smartphone to achieve. Kulkarni said she practices what she preaches, having ditched Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, using WhatsApp strictly to connect with family and trying to limit her checking of email.

Students should also understand that trying, as in “I will try,” may involve failure, Kulkarni said, but those failures are part of learning and enable growth. She said that 25 years ago, as a college student, she was unhappy about being enrolled in an engineering program, unhappy enough that her academic focus waned for her first couple of years. She said she would have flunked out if teachers and mentors hadn’t, despite her failing math grades, spotted her potential.

“I think that those early failures and the willingness to ask for and receive help from others have definitely allowed me to pick up, dust off, and embrace engineering enough to want to teach others to be engineers,” Kulkarni said. “So, I have to say that as a teacher and educator, I see the potential in every one of you — even though I do not know most of you individually as of yet. I know my colleagues, your teachers and our wonderful Norwich staff see this in each of you as well, and we stand by to help as needed.”

(Slideshow photos by Mark Collier.)

To maximize educational potential, she said, students must care about and own their learning. Students should expect excellence from professors —  great lessons and answered questions and held office hours — and the university — support services and activities.

Students should expect just as much from themselves, Kulkarni said.

“It is easy to say that you didn’t do well because the test was hard, the teacher was not fair, your friend borrowed your notebook, so you couldn’t do your homework,” she said. “But the only person who can truly be responsible for your learning and success is you.”

Kulkarni said she learns from her students as they learn from her. Every in-class cue, verbal and nonverbal, informs her thinking; these signs tell her when she should insert activities, lengthen debates or adapt lessons. Because she cares, she watches closely.

In their remarks, Dr. Sandra Affenito, Norwich’s provost, and Dr. Richard W. Schneider, Norwich’s president, outlined how closely they, too, are watching. Both said they and all other campus personnel stand ready to partner with students to continue Norwich’s 200-year-old tradition of academic excellence.

“It is most appropriate that as a community, we come together to remind ourselves of our shared responsibility,” Affenito said, “to live out our guiding values of integrity, service and of honorable leadership.”

Affenito thanked Schneider, who will retire in May after 28 years as president, for his honorable leadership. Schneider said it’s a bittersweet time for him; he’ll miss Norwich and will aim to finish strong.

People who finish at Norwich, hitting Interstate 89 or another exit pathway with their diplomas, often end up back on campus to visit, Schneider said. That will be especially true during Homecoming, Sept. 18 through Sept. 22, when 6,000 to 8,000 alumni come to campus to mark the university’s bicentennial.

From left, Norwich University Dean Aron Temkin, Provost Sandra Affenito and Associate Provosts Natalia Blank and Karen Hinkle watch Convocation activities on Aug. 27, 2019, at Shapiro Field House. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

“You’re going to have an unbelievable opportunity and I want you to take advantage of that opportunity,” Schneider said. “There may be people wandering around on campus looking around at stuff and saying ‘That building wasn’t here the last time I was here. What is it?’

“And guess what? You have ground truth,” Schneider added. “Talk to them. Introduce yourself. You may find out that you live in the same state or know somebody or have some connection.”

Citing Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” Schneider said Norwich aims to ensure that education pays both interest and dividends for all of its students.

All everyone on campus wants, he said, is to see students succeed.

“We build our reputation as teachers and scholars on what you do,” Schneider said. “It’s on what you do that 200 years of reputation will continue to be built.”

Speaking of building, Kulkarni encouraged Norwich’s students to continue constructing their knowledge collage. She said she learns from everyone around her, fellow teachers and colleagues, whether they know it or not. Every lesson, every experience, every new perspective fits somewhere.

She hopes the same for everyone.

“I hope you learn to create this network for yourselves and strengthen ones you may already have,” she said. “I am deeply grateful to all my past, present and future students who have helped, are helping and will help me become a teacher — an educator in a way that I only dreamed of being.”




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