Run through the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL), the Synaptic Scholars program looks to offer students a community in which they can engage with a diverse group of students who have an eclectic set of interests, backgrounds and experiences and a common passion to pursue interdisciplinary study and engage in intellectual learning and collaboration.
The Synaptic Scholars program is a tight−knit community made up of 10 to 12 students from each of the sophomore, junior and senior classes. Students apply as freshmen and enter into the three−year program at the beginning of their sophomore year. The program’s platform consists of three basic levels: individual leadership development, support and mentorship within the scholar community and a presence and involvement in the Tufts community, according to IGL Director and founder of the Synaptic Scholars program Sherman Teichman.
The Synaptic Scholars program looks to further the mission statement of the IGL, “Thinking Beyond Boundaries, Acting Across Borders,” by encouraging an interdisciplinary outlook.
“To me the disciplines are the vertical uprights of a ladder, and what I was interested in trying to simulate are the horizontal rungs of the ladder,” Teichman said. “Through the Synaptic program, students can fuse disparate passions and not yield to specialization at an early age.”
Scholars embark on individual or small group projects with the goal of juxtaposing interests from different fields of study that, on the surface, might not seem to be related, Teichman said. Since the students have the resources of the IGL at their disposal, these projects can take the form of internships, research opportunities and travel. In addition, scholars meet once a week to engage in intellectual discussion on interdisciplinary topics, according to the group’s mission statement.
These weekly meetings also offer a time for scholars to collaborate on ways in which to engage with the greater Tufts community. The Tufts Idea Exchange (TEX) is one of these initiatives, according to junior scholar Benjamin Perlstein, who spearheaded the planning of the event that debuted in April 2011. TEX is a university−wide event designed to provide a platform for sharing new and innovative ideas within the Tufts community across disciplines and departments, and to increase the vibrancy of intellectual life at Tufts outside of conventional classroom contexts, according to the IGL 2011 Annual Report.
“Having a forum for people to have an intellectually stimulating community experience is really powerful … and drawing from all parts of the university and extending learning beyond the classroom can allow us to learn about the stuff going on beyond our department, our major and our classes,” Perlstein said.
Fireside Chats and the Brown and Brew lecture series are other scholar initiatives to connect with the Tufts community and promote intellectual curiosity and discussion on campus, Teichman said.
Teichman initially ran the Neubauer Scholars program, a merit−based scholarship used to fund and support student research at Tufts.
“That program deviated from one of its major purposes, which was to create a community of scholars,” Teichman said.
The Neubauer Scholars program was phased into the Synaptic Scholars program in 2006 in order to better fulfill its original goal of creating a scholarly community, according to Teichman.
“It’s an enriching thing when you have a community of people who are studying together,” Teichman said. “They may be doing disparate things but the commonality is a passion for learning and intellectual curiosity.”
Scholars identify the community as the program’s most valuable resource.
“[What] I was missing from Tufts [was] having intellectual conversation on a whim, and being in a room with a group of different people,” senior Sasha deBeausset said.
DeBeausset also commented on the value of student collaboration.
“A lot of my ideas [for my research] were centered with conversations I had with other Synaptic Scholars,” she said. “I had a group of really smart people with different perspectives to bounce my ideas off of, ask me questions and give me guidance.”
Other students expressed similar enthusiasm for the potential of the Synaptic Scholars community.
“The resources are the people around you,” sophomore Jonathan Wolff said.
“Conversations with other scholars shifted and honed my interests,” sophomore Roy Loewenstein said. “Everybody wants everybody to succeed.”
The mentorship aspect of the program implemented last year was meant to reinforce this collaboration and idea exchange, Wolff said. Sophomores are matched with a senior mentor upon entry into the program. While this collaboration already occurred, the mentorship program offers a more formal framework to ensure that each scholar has one person with them on every step of their projects, deBeausset said.
Students who study abroad as juniors often feel disconnected upon returning to Tufts and may subsequently disengage from the community. The mentorship program tries to reengage the returning seniors in a positive and productive way for both sides involved, according to Teichman.
“As an underclassman, having upperclassmen who have experience is valuable, and it is good for the upperclassmen as well, gaining a fresh perspective from the sophomore class,” Perlstein said.
The program is entirely student−run, allowing scholars to define the environment and be actively involved in selecting the new members every year, according to deBeausset. The application process for the 2012−2013 school year has begun, and 68 freshmen are waiting to hear if they have been selected for one of the program’s 12 open slots, Teichman said.
Teichman explained that while it is difficult to reject a large percentage of applicants each year, the community must remain small in order to preserve the intimacy vital to its success. He added, however, that the IGL is actively working to create new scholar circles; he firmly believes each student at Tufts should have the opportunity to form such a community.
“The guts of this thing are the personalities of the scholars themselves,” he said. “It’s a community that understands that learning is passionate and fun.”