As an undergraduate student working as a tutor in The University of Texas-Pan American's Writing Center, Rebecca Ramos saw daily the difficulty of students trying to translate their thinking in Spanish to proper writing in English.
"It's really hard for them to translate those ideas that they want to say into English," said Ramos, who is now a graduate student at Pan Am pursuing a master's in English as a Second Language. "I thought the Writing Center could be a little more ESL friendly. We owe it to the students to help them convey their ideas because we want to see their voice in their writing."
She turned her concern into a research project - "Transitioning from Limbo" - focused not only on Mexican national students dealing with the differences in structures of writing an essay in English rather than Spanish but also the observations of the center's tutors about the needs of students on this side of the border where the two cultures connect and its effect on their writing proficiency.
Ramos hopes her findings will one day result in workshops providing more specialized training in grammar, punctuation, and translation for the Center's tutors.
Ramos' research is will be one of many quests undertaken by UTPA students for new knowledge and solutions to problems that will be highlighted at the University's first Undergraduate Research Conference "Explore and Engage," scheduled for Nov. 19-20.
The conference was initiated by UTPA's Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Havidan Rodriguez. Its goal is to showcase undergraduates engaging and connecting what they are doing in the classroom with outside experiences and generating their own knowledge, said Dr. Danika Brown, associate director of English and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Service Learning.
"One of the ways to encourage student research activities is to showcase them. It is also a way to professionalize students by having them experience an academic research presentation and putting themselves on stage," she said.
Conference submissions were open to all undergraduate students in any discipline but required their original research be conducted under the supervision of a faculty member or professional in their field. Panels of faculty and graduate students reviewed the more than 100 submissions involving 140 students. Those selected will present their research in panels of oral presentations or poster format.
"All of our studies in higher education on student success indicate that if students have an opportunity to identify something that connects them to this university - if they work with even one faculty member outside the classroom, if they see their academic experience have a greater relevance than just getting a grade in a class, they are far more likely to succeed and we want students to succeed," Brown said. "Additionally we want students to be prepared. Our demographic of students is far underrepresented in graduate programs and in careers that require graduate degrees, especially in areas that are research intensive which include STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields). So any opportunity we can bolster student success there is important."
Much undergraduate research is already underway at UTPA through Undergraduate Research Initiative grants, Howard Hughes Medical Institute funding and other programs.
Ramos, who has plans to become an ESL teacher, said she has learned that research at Pan Am is not just for graduate students, professors or professionals and already has plans for other linguistic-related research including an analysis of articles on code-switching (switching between two or more languages in a conversation) and looking at the social and economic impacts of language loyalty.
"Doing this research made me wish I had been doing it all my past four years as an undergrad. It gets your feet wet and reassures a lot of students as to what they want to do," Ramos said.
She also appreciates the relationship she has established with her faculty sponsor Dr. Rebekah Hamilton, University Writing Center director.
"You get to talk to somebody who has devoted a good portion of their life to the field you want to go into and the area you are interested in. It's great because it doubles as a mentoring opportunity as well. You develop this great relationship with someone who could help you even after the conference is over," Ramos said.
To learn more about the conference, which will also offer sessions on preparing for graduate study and graduate programs available at UTPA, contact Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about undergraduate research at UTPA visit their website.