She doesn't have a view, but still has a vision

Bethany Usher, center, Mason's new associate provost for undergraduate education, says her vision is one of total student engagement. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Bethany Usher would love a window in her office. And if George Mason University’s new associate provost for undergraduate education moved to the Merten Hall space waiting for her, she would have one.

Instead, Usher will remain in her windowless digs in the Johnson Center, straining to see daylight through the top-floor windows visible through her office doorway.

“There’s always something going on in this building,” Usher said. “The space is active for students and faculty, and being accessible to them is really important.”

Usher has spent the past five years engaging with students and faculty as director of the Students as Scholars initiative in the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR). The experience and relationships she forged will be invaluable as she investigates and then tries to construct what she calls “a clear vision of what we want the undergraduate experience to look like.”

For Usher, that vision is one of total student engagement, not only with their studies but with experiential learning that enhances the facts and figures gleaned in the classroom and creates a passion that perhaps spotlights a life path.

“I do think the undergraduate experience should be transformational,” Usher said. She called it “engaged scholarship.”

Usher found that experience for herself as a biology and anthropology major at the University of Virginia. Through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, she was an undergraduate biomedical researcher. She helped excavate and save a Monacan Indian mound in Orange County, Va., that was eroding from water damage. And she worked at a bookstore.

“All those things changed my perception of what it means to be an engaged undergraduate,” Usher said.

“She gets it,” George Mason Provost and Executive Vice President S. David Wu said. “It’s about rethinking higher education in a different framework. It’s how the students discover their passion and use that to enhance the quality of our education. She really gets that idea.”

Usher knows this is not a top-down exercise. There will be many discussions with students, faculty and campus organizations. Most important is to find out what students want from their educational experience, what they are not getting and what they want more of.

“I don’t think we’ve asked enough students that question yet,” she said.

There’s no better place to do that than at the Johnson Center.

“I like being here,” Usher said, “even if I don’t get a window.”