Anniversary of Cornerstone Program marks a decade of success
A decade ago, Don Curtis, Assistant Dean for High-Impact Programs in the College of Liberal Arts, established Cornerstone, a program structured as a learning community for a select group of liberal arts students. Under Curtis’s direction, Cornerstone continues to thrive and will celebrate its 10th anniversary this October.
“Cornerstone, more than any class or anything the faculty members or I can teach, is about the idea of empowering students as individuals and as scholars,” Curtis said. “Ultimately, my hope is that these students come out of the program with a much better understanding of the world, how we fit into the global puzzle, and also that they realize that there’s more to them than even they thought.”
The program began as a way to help students achieve excellence in academics, service, and international understanding. With academic excellence as the “cornerstone of all of it,” the students take specialized classes from day one of college.
“We try to give them a leg up academically, because down the road, we want to groom these students to apply for prestigious national and international scholarships. It reflects well on the college that we have that caliber of student here,” Curtis said.
During their first semester, Cornerstone students are enrolled in a critical thinking course called the “Last Lecture Series.” There, various liberal arts professors and guest speakers visit and address issues they are passionate about. To inspire these topics, Curtis will ask his guest lecturers, “What would you want to talk about if you were going to die tomorrow?”
For sophomore Cornerstone student Clayton Cromer, the Last Lecture Series inspired him to pursue a minor in philosophy.
“[This is] a decision I probably would not have made had I not been given the opportunity to hear some of the best philosophy professors give their ‘last lecture,’” Cromer said. “It gave me the [chance] to learn about various fields that I would not have otherwise.”
Curtis also encourages the development of independent thought.
“Something I really emphasize is our students forming their own opinions and making intelligent, informed decisions; not assuming what somebody tells you is true just because they have a ‘Ph.D.’ behind their name,” Curtis said.
In the lectures, students are often presented with controversial concepts. These ideas, according to sophomore Cornerstone student Vincent Sacco, make students “question their deepest convictions” and “ask tough questions and examine issues,” which Sacco believes are essential to a Liberal Arts education.
The program also actively promotes the importance of gaining international insight. According to Curtis, Texas A&M University sends approximately five percent of students abroad, with the College of Liberal Arts doubling the overall percentage at ten percent. Meanwhile, an average of 65 percent of Cornerstone students will spend time abroad for at least a five-week period.
“The international experience demystifies the experience of going abroad and reduces concern about safety, cost, and communicating with people in a different country,” Curtis said.
A third element of the program is its focus on service. Cornerstone stresses involvement, leadership, and a sense of community. Curtis feels that a majority of his students already have the eagerness to give back to the community and entrusts them with achieving it on their own.
One Cornerstone Student’s Story
Elizabeth Baker is a sophomore international studies major aspiring to work in public service. This fall, she will work closely with Curtis to earn one of four university nominations for the highly competitive Truman Scholarship. These nominees will then compete nationwide for the federal scholarship, which will grant $30,000 toward a graduate education.
This past summer, Baker spent ten weeks in Matagalpa, Nicaragua as a project supervisor for the international nonprofit organization Amigos de las Americas.
There, she managed a hectic schedule with activities ranging from purchasing materials for construction projects and delivering mail to scheduling one-on-one feedback conversations with each volunteer to discuss the progress of the classes they were teaching in the community. On top of that, she was able to implement her Spanish-speaking skills as a provisional medical translator to help ease the communication difficulty when volunteers were sick and needed medical treatment.
“I had a stressful job and a lot of responsibility, but I loved it,” Baker said. “I would much rather be doing this than working in a frozen yogurt place or doing Excel spreadsheets all day!”
While Baker was abroad, Curtis maintained contact, playing the role of guide, mentor, and supporter. Another advantage of Cornerstone is that with such a selective group of students, Curtis has the opportunity to build these types of relationships with his students.
“Dr. Curtis is probably the most helpful person I know at A&M,” Baker said of her mentor. “He’s definitely well-respected by everyone in the program, but he’s also someone you can joke around with. He really shows an interest in the students he teaches, and I feel really lucky to be a part of the program.”
Entering his tenth year as director of the program, Curtis finds gratification in seeing his students continue to succeed in all aspects of life.
“I learn more from my students than I could ever possibly teach them, and that’s been the true joy of the program—to work with these talented, sharp individuals and to be able to pick up so much from them,” Curtis said.
For Curtis, a passion for watching his students thrive served as the original inspiration to pursue the idea of creating a learning community ten years ago.
“Cornerstone was my baby from the get-go,” Curtis said. “Over the years, the technology is obviously changing. For instance, I’ve seen my students’ presentations go from PowerPoint to Prezi. What’s constant is that fundamentally, intelligent, driven students are going to be the same no matter what.”
Former Cornerstone students will be on campus for the anniversary and will receive tours from current Cornerstone participants. Curtis is expecting over a hundred Cornerstone alumni to return for the event.