The University Record, December 19, 1994

UROP helps students feel part of U’s academic mission

By Julie Robinson
News and Information Services

For many undergraduates, large universities can be intimidating places. Fortunately, at the U-M there’s UROP to the rescue. The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) helps students with the transition to campus life by making them part of the academic mission of the University.

UROP is one of the largest undergraduate research programs in the country and one of the few to give first- and second-year students the opportunity to work on academic research projects. It gives students a valuable introduction to the academic world of a major research university, and helps them develop research skills and contacts.

UROP was launched in 1989 to increase minority student retention. John Jonides, professor of psychology and UROP’s first director, noted that many students of color had trouble identifying with the academic mission of the Uni-versity. He began encouraging professors to make room in their labs and offices for undergraduate research assistants. It began as a small initiative with 14 research partnerships. Five years later, the program involves almost 700 students and 400 faculty.

However, Sandy Gregerman, UROP’s current director, says there were initial apprehensions. “Many faculty members didn’t think first- and second-year students could assist with their research projects. Some had never worked with undergrads before.”

The students quickly proved their dedication and UROP got to be known around town. “It grew by word of mouth,” Gregerman says. “As faculty members had positive experiences, they told others. As it became successful, more and more faculty participated. Now many of these students co-author papers and are valuable members of research teams.”

With additional funding from the state and federal government and foundations such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the program is now open to all students, although it still targets underrepresented students and women interested in science careers. Student selection is random to ensure diverse participation. The common criteria is a commitment to research.

The activity level found in UROP’s West Quad offices is a good indication that such commitment runs high. Every inch of space is utilized and its open environment encourages friendships and the creation of support systems, an aspect of UROP many new students rely on for help and guidance.

Upperclass peer advisers are an integral part of the support system. They are past participants in the program who act as mentors and give guidance in all matters from personal to professional. Senior Michael Carter relied on his peer adviser during his sophomore year. “I went through some rough waters academically and she was able to help me in ways I didn’t think of,” Carter says. “I was able to succeed in the University and hope to enter the chemical engineering field.” As a peer adviser, he says, “At times we become that parent away from home.”

In an effort to see if UROP really does improve student retention and performance, a long-term study of UROP participants began three years ago. The research looks at student retention and ways to improve the program, and tries to determine why UROP is successful in improving retention rates of African American students. Surveys were recently sent out to 400–500 former participants to measure their success and to see where improvements can be made.

“We’re trying to see if it really works,” says Gregerman. “I think UROP helps them develop a host of academic skills. It shows students the whole university pipeline and they learn what it would be like to have an academic career.”

Research results are already being used to encourage other schools to establish similar programs that “don’t just target the upper-level honors student,” Gregerman says. “The results also will help guide UROP’s own growth and direction. We need to know how big we can get and still be effective in meeting faculty and student needs.”