Dionne Bensonsmith, a doctoral candidate in political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, uses her experiences to connect with the undergraduates she teaches and counsels.
When one of Dionne Bensonsmith's students fails to show up for class or turn in an assignment on time, she doesn't take it personally. After all, she's been there, done thatsomething she doesn't try to hide from her students. "I'm not afraid to use my personal experiences and foibles as teaching tools," she says. "I tell them, 'You have your own lives and have to make decisions on how to organize your time.' This is part of what they're learningit's not an innate skill."|
A doctoral candidate in political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Bensonsmith has worked with students as an academic counselor, a teaching assistant, and, most recently, an instructor in undergraduate political science courses at the College of Arts and Sciences. She hopes this experience will lead to work as a professor at a university that stresses teaching over research. "I like doing research," she says. "But I love teaching. It's hard work, but I really enjoy it."
As an undergraduate, Bensonsmith attended the University of Notre Dame on a basketball scholarship. An All-America high school athlete from Indiana, she embarked on a well-established route that included plans for a professional basketball career in Europe. But knee injuries in her freshman and junior years derailed those aspirations. Still, her experiences as a student athletejuggling practice and games with study timehelped prepare her for SU. "I wouldn't trade any of it," she says. "It's a big reason why I'm able to stand the rigors of graduate school. I've been through not having enough time to get things done and figuring out, 'OK, there are only 24 hours in a day and I've got 48 hours' worth of stuff to do. I have to prioritize.'"
In 1996, she began working as an academic counselor for the College of Arts and Sciences' Exploratory Student Program, an advising initiative for students considered at risk for academic suspension or dropping out. The program targets certain incoming students with undeclared majors, Bensonsmith says, because studies show that such students tend to drop out by sophomore year. The students she counseled felt out of place, having no clear idea of what they wanted to do with their lives. "I had students come in and say, 'Now I want to be in communications,'" she says. "They were surprised to hear they could change majors that easily. I had six majors at Notre Dame before I settled on political science. You're 17 or 18 when you come to college. You don't really know what you want to do for the rest of your life. Even if you do, something may jumble it up. That's what college is aboutbeing in a safe environment to figure that all out."
The counseling experience proved useful when, in 1996, Bensonsmith became a teaching assistant (TA) in the political science department. "As a counselor, I saw students from a different angle than what you see in class," she says. "I was with them on an informal basis. You learn a lot from hearing students' perceptions of their teachers: what worked for them in learning, what they didn't understand. That helped me later in setting up my own classes."
Bensonsmith feels the University-wide TA programwhich includes orientation for new TAs and professional development seminars in teaching and advisinghas given her a considerable edge in the job market. "Most graduate programs concentrate on research," she says. "Teaching is just something you do on the side. Many graduate students have had no classroom experience before teaching a class for the first time. They have never had discussions about how to make a clear and concise syllabus, what to say in lectures, how to advise studentsall of which are aspects of your professional responsibilities.
"At Syracuse, they train you to be a teacher as part of your professional development. And it makes you a strong candidate, especially if you're applying to a teaching school rather than a research school, because you can jump right in. It's not a worry."