Interview With Macaulay’s Founding Dean, Part II

See Part I of our interview with Dr. Laura Schor here!

Macaulay Messenger: How is Macaulay different from when it started, and what do you hope to see in Macaulay in the future?

Dr. Laura Schor: The development is just extraordinary. If you want to be a happy person, be the first person to start a great program that keeps getting better! It’s really wonderful. When we first started, none of the high schools in New York wanted to send us students. The only one we got some attention from was Brooklyn Tech. We could fill our entire class now with Stuyvesant or Bronx Science applications. We have become a place where everyone wants to be, or at least everyone wants to apply to. The College, now known as Macaulay Honors College, has grown very dramatically. There are now 8 campuses involved, which is quite something; there’s also a transfer program for some community college students, which didn’t exist before. Our graduates are sought after in highly competitive graduate and professional programs, in prestigious jobs and for selective fellowships.

We now have a very strong and wonderful alumni association. I was involved at its inception as I envisaged it from the beginning. I remember telling students in 2001 that I was thrilled that they were freshmen, but that I really wanted to see them when they’re alums! And they understood it and they behaved that way; as soon as they graduated those students became involved in helping the next group, which is what we wanted alums to do. So we have mentoring programs of all sort, volunteer programs of all sorts, and a lot of the early graduates went into professional work that is extremely meaningful for the current student boy.

There’s a class of 2005 graduate who became an immigration lawyer. When President Trump started his Muslim ban she organized all kinds of students to go and protest. She’s worked on cases for students in Macaulay, pro bono, and her office is used by students for all kinds of things. It’s great. Same thing with medical school students, we have many doctors mentoring would-be medical students; law groups and legal groups that meet all the time, of Macaulay graduates who are lawyers who are there to help others who are interested in becoming lawyers. We have those in the finance field – that was one of things that we started very early, I think the second or third year, we were able to set up internships in the finance industry, because we had a large cohort from Baruch and a lot of them were interested in that. I think the first place we did it was at Bear Stearns, and in every case wherever we sent them, the reaction was “Oh, these are really good students! These are wonderful kids!” They didn’t have a history with CUNY so they had a negative view of it and only recruited from Ivy League schools. We now have the highest concentration of our alums working at Chase. And they’re doing well.

Macaulay Messenger: How has Macaulay changed since its first few years?

Dr. Laura Schor: First of all, it’s much bigger, so everyone doesn’t get together as much as we used to force people to. We forced it because part of the idea was that you should be exposed to as many different types of students as possible, and we thought that especially the Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island kids – their campuses were pretty much borough-based and we wanted them to have other experiences. We’re too big to do that now; everyone gets together for orientation, but it’s such a big orientation that it’s done in segments. So that’s changed.

There are a lot of student activity groups that didn’t exist when we first started, which is wonderful. And there are a lot of opportunities in fields that have developed since we were a college, lots of high-tech stuff. There are rooms now in 67th street that are set up for lab-based education, and there are several professors that now teach courses at 67th street for the Macaulay-wide student body. That didn’t exist then.

Macaulay Messenger: What has Macaulay done for CUNY?

Dr. Laura Schor: Macaulay has done tremendous things for CUNY. First of all, at Hunter and all the other campuses where there’s a group of Macaulay students, not only have the Macaulay students raised the general level – which is hard to believe, because it’s still a small group in a very large campus – but it’s had a tremendous ripple effect; there are now probably twice as many other Honors students at Hunter as there are Macaulay students, who were attracted to Macaulay and didn’t get in but were offered something else by Hunter. I am amazed at how different my classes are because of the level of students. In the city council where we first started, they were very opposed to the Honors college, I had to go down to talk to City Council to explain that this was not a racist, elitist attempt to change CUNY but rather an opportunity for the best and the brightest that we should be supporting, as well as those who have troubles. That was a very hard sell then. It’s not a hard sell now – everybody loves it.

Macaulay Messenger: What’s a mistake you often see students make that you wish you could head off in advance?

Dr. Laura Schor: There are some students who don’t dream big enough, and that I think is the saddest thing of all  – these are students who don’t expect a lot from themselves, who come in and do their work, which is okay and fine, but they don’t really understand that if they really try harder, their lives would be much richer. So that bothers me; I always try to encourage students to raise their expectations for themselves, and that doesn’t mean “to hope to earn more money”! It means to become more engaged with the world, with everything they do they should understand, you’re only here now, you’re only here once! Make the most of those years, don’t just sleep through it!

When I first started teaching years and years ago, as a graduate student, I taught a class at the Rochester Institute of Technology of 40 young men who were all studying printing. I was 23 years old and I was teaching them a required course in the history of Western civilization, which they did not want to learn at all. I remember going in and telling them, “You know, you’re all going to graduate, you’re going to become printers, you’ll get jobs for 8 hours a day. Let’s assume you’ll sleep 8 hours a day. That leaves you 8 more hours! What are you going to do after you get tired of watching television and drinking beer? You’ve got to have another life, other things that you think about and care about. I’m giving you an opportunity to learn more about the world.” Some of them got it. That’s what I’m concerned about for students.

There are others who try too hard, who are worried and nervous all the time.  I don’t advocate that, but I do advocate stepping out of your comfort zone, trying out new things, meeting new people, engaging with life.  The motto that I taught to students when I was Dean of the Honors college was “Always think of the three E’s – Engagement, to engage with others and with your subjects and to do it seriously; to Experiment with new ideas and new people and to try new things; and to seek Excellence.” I think all three are important to students.

Macaulay Messenger: What is your message for Macaulay students?

Dr. Laura Schor: Think big! Think “What problem exists in the world that I might be able to help solve?” What about the way things are done today – either in your community, in the city, in the country, someplace else in the world – that needs resolution that you think you can bring something to? That’s the most gratifying thing in the world – to know that you’ve helped make change.  

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