It’s a weighty question. What was the most important thing you did while you were in college? For a small group of students in UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the answer is often instantaneous and simple: The Blount Undergraduate Initiative.
Although the four-year liberal arts program comprises a mere 20 percent of each participating student’s course of study, giving each student a minor in the liberal arts, Director Joe Hornsby said he hears the same message from graduating seniors each year. That is, the Blount Initiative was the single most important part of their collegiate careers.
Michelle Fuentes, a 2007 graduate of the program who received her doctorate in political science from UA this year, is no exception.
“Blount has been the most transformative organization I’ve ever participated in,” she said.
The program, which boasts one of the strongest 10-year reviews on record, is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year with an on-campus commemoration Oct. 31-Nov. 1. All alumni, faculty, and staff who have participated in the program are invited to attend.
The Blount Undergraduate Initiative was established in 1999 as an intellectual and social haven for exceptional students interested in the liberal arts. Its students take small, seminar-style classes from professors throughout the College of Arts and Sciences faculty, starting and ending with courses that bring into conversation the ideas of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, including Plato, Sigmund Freud, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Edward O. Wilson, and Steven Pinker, to name a few. Extensive reading and writing are standard from day one.
The program began with then Dean James Yarbrough’s vision to create a college experience much like he and many other faculty members had experienced themselves, one in which the residence hall was an important part of a student’s life and intellectual growth. Today, the Blount Living-Learning Center embodies that vision. All freshmen in the program live and take classes in the center their freshman year, while upperclassmen have academic “homes” in the heart of campus in Oliver-Barnard and Tuomey halls, located on the main Quadrangle. The program is named in honor of Winton and Carolyn Blount, who gave $7 million to the College to endow and establish the initiative.
Fuentes, though emblematic of other Blount students in her passion for the program, has a particularly unique relationship with it. She participated in Blount as an undergraduate, co-taught freshman seminars as a graduate student, and served six classes of students as the director of the living-learning center.
“I think the program is particularly unique and special because it grounds college friendships in not only a social atmosphere, but in intellectual bonds that last well into our lives as young professionals,” she said. “The Living-Learning Center, in so many ways, is not just a place where students sleep. It’s a place where faculty members open students’ perspectives and where students explore their worldviews. It’s a place where I continually saw personal growth in my students, my peers, and also myself. I think I would be a completely different person had I not participated in the program.”
But students aren’t the only ones who say the program is influential.
Dr. Sally Davis, who served on the faculty committee that helped create the program, retired in 2005 from teaching in the Department of English. But she still teaches Blount courses because she said they allow her to continue the parts of academic life she enjoys most.
“I like the material, the interaction with faculty in other departments, and the students,” Davis said. “One of the nice things, almost from the program’s beginning, we heard and still hear is that other faculty members say they can tell when they have a Blount student in their class, which I like. The students talk and participate more, and they think better and write better.
“The other good thing about Blount is that it connects freshmen with faculty members from the beginning, so you really get a chance to know each other. Blount alumni who came back for the 10th anniversary celebration felt the draw of both the students they wanted to see and their connections to faculty members. The anniversary celebrations are a great opportunity to reacquaint alumni with the program, and to reacquaint us with them to see where they are in their careers.”
Dr. Ian Brown, who served on the faculty committee with Davis and currently serves as chair of the Department of Anthropology, feels similarly.
“There are a few things in my life, probably less than a dozen, that I look back on and knew from the beginning that they would be worthwhile endeavors that I would want to spend a good portion of my life helping to develop,” Brown said. “Blount is one of those. I’m a northerner, and when I came to Alabama, I had no idea I’d be here for 23 years and running. But I have never wanted to leave here because of things like the Blount Initiative. It has been one of the adventures of my life.”
The College of Arts and Sciences will be hosting a day of activities for all former and current Blount scholars in Oliver-Bernard Hall on Nov. 1. Any current or former students who signed Blount’s “Book of Scholars” as freshmen are invited, as are any faculty or administrators linked to the program throughout its history.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Hornsby said. “We’ve set up the program so that every student has the same foundations course — Socrates, St. Augustine, Freud — but from there students take courses in all kinds of disciplines. It’ll be interesting to see students able to connect on that level with people from the program they’ve really never even met.”
From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., there will be an informal open house in Oliver-Barnard Hall for participants to mingle and discuss the program, as well as showcase the program to prospective students. A cocktail reception will be held for participants only at 6 p.m.
For more information, visit as.ua.edu or call the Blount Undergraduate Initiative office at 205-348-1706.