As a first-generation college student, Carmen Huerta-Bapat knew that she wanted to be involved in research, but she didn’t know how to connect with professors and begin a research career as an undergrad.
“I was raised with the idea that you don’t just bother people,” she said. “And why would I go to an office hour and waste someone’s time unless I had some sort of Earth-shattering discovery, which to this day has not happened?”
Now a teaching assistant professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ curriculum in global studies, Huerta-Bapat is helping Carolina students get involved in research on campus. That goal is at the core of her new course, “Contemporary World Problems.”
Co-taught by teaching associate professor Erica Johnson from the curriculum in global studies, the course introduces ways to conduct research on politics, economies, cultures and societies around the world by connecting students with current professors and researchers examining these topics at Carolina.
“The goal of the class for us is to be able to expose students to all of the global opportunities and the global centers that are present at the University that students might not necessarily be familiar with and to expose them to all of the people that teach these courses,” Huerta-Bapat said.
“We’re trying to highlight that you don’t have to travel to the five corners of the Earth — I mean, hopefully, they get to do that, too — but you don’t have to to be engaged in global topics,” said Johnson, who also serves as the director of graduate studies in the curriculum in global studies.
By inviting faculty members and researchers to speak to the class and share their own research journeys, Huerta-Bapat and Johnson designed the course to help students develop personal research roadmaps — complete with questions, values and the connections to pursue them.
Creating that roadmap early in students’ careers, Johnson said, can help students make the most of their time at Carolina and open more opportunities. It can also help seniors prepare for what comes after graduation.
“What can I put down on paper concretely that is a plan, a roadmap or steps I might take next if I’m an earlier-stage student? Or what can I write in a statement of purpose for a graduate school application or for a job application that’s going to be able to encapsulate my full four years at Carolina?” Johnson said. “It’s really important to empower students to own their academic identity. And I think at the end of the course, I hope we are able to achieve that.”
The course is also part of Carolina Away’s one-credit, remote courses that encourage small-group experiences with classmates, faculty and staff. The curriculum is open to all students but is specifically designed for Carolina Away, which combines virtual courses and social opportunities for first-year and transfer students who opted to attend Carolina remotely.
With so many students studying remotely this year, Huerta-Bapat believes the course can have an even more significant impact.
“Given the fact that we are doing everything virtually, the students are in need of making purposeful connections with professors, and what better way than to structure a class that would allow students to do that?” she asked. “I think the really cool thing about this class is that it provides a structured way for students to make those personal connections.”
Those connections can set a strong foundation for when they can be on campus.
For first-year student Max Poteat, the course was exactly what he was looking for as he begins looking for research opportunities as a Tar Heel. With plans to major in public policy, the focus on examining research through a global lens initially drew Poteat to the course. He was also searching for an opportunity to make connections with the faculty members after spending his first semester at Carolina remotely.
“I’m definitely interested in research. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to come to UNC,” he said. “It’s a Tier I research school, and knowing there are a lot of research opportunities was a big driving factor. This was a great course to be able to explore that.”