Keepin’ It Classy

Posted by Arden Wells


“Do you see that outcrop of gneiss over there?”

“Uh…huh. Yep. That’s it. Right there.” I was sitting in a raft next to a geologist, nodding my head, but internally wondering what a “nice” was. I felt like a total imposter. I had declared geosciences as my major because I thought volcanoes and dinosaurs were cool and wanted to help protect water resources. What would people say when they found out that the lone geosciences major knew absolutely nothing about volcanoes or dinosaurs…or even rocks?

Three years later, I was back in New Mexico, floating on the river at McDermott freshman orientation. Except this year, I was the geologist. And, heck yes, I could identify those rocks.

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Physical Geology Field Trip: Dinosaur dig at Arlington Archosaur Site

The McDermott Scholars Program has given me incredibly diverse opportunities to grow and explore the world, but the most valuable aspect of the program has been my education at UT Dallas. Attending a lecture and doing homework aren’t as exciting as hiking through the Andes or as glamorous as attending the opera, but they make up a large portion of my daily life. My academics are, after all, the whole point of why I’m attending college.

I’m now in my last semester at UT Dallas, and it’s crazy how much I’ve learned about the Earth while at UTD. During my first semester’s Physical Geology lab, I struggled to decide if I should lick a rock to see if it’s halite after it had already been identified by 20 students wielding bottles of hydrochloric acid (I did. It wasn’t.). For Field Geology I, they dumped us out in the desert for three weeks to map the underlying rocks. Over the years, I’ve consumed gallons of coffee from my “Dinosaur Valley State Park” mug while sketching minerals and fossils late at night in the geology classroom.

The McDermott Program is closely tied to Collegium V (CV), UTD’s Honors College. To graduate with honors, we are required to take at least 12 credits of small, discussion-based honors courses. Many students use these courses as a way to explore subjects outside of their majors, taking courses about science fiction and game theory.

I didn’t enter UTD with any credit, so I’ve taken advantage of CV courses that work towards my core classes. CV classes are very challenging, but extremely rewarding. Last semester was supposed to be my “easy” semester—the one full of core classes I had avoided taking my freshman year. Alas, two of those courses were Honors Understanding Art and Honors Slavery and Abolition, so the low-workload thing didn’t work out the way I planned.

For my Abolition and Slavery class, a big objective was for each student to produce a publishable piece of historical scholarship. This is an ambitious undertaking for an undergraduate, especially one who hadn’t taken a history course in over four years. We were encouraged to pick a topic associated with our interests, so I chose to write about geophagy, or dirt-eating, among slaves. I spent much of last semester hunting down 19th century medical journals that discussed geophagy on plantations and reading recent Amazon reviews of “George White Dirt” (great flavor but not enough crunch). I’m currently trying to polish the paper to send off to a journal.

Every Thursday evening, my Understanding Art class took a charter bus to the Dallas Museum of Art. The course was tied to the temporary “Conquest of the Incas” exhibit and focused on Andean art, diving into Andean culture and even Quechua phrases. At the end of each class, we would walk through the exhibit and examine the artifacts we had just discussed. I wish I had taken this class before I studied abroad in South America, but I’ve already been inspired to start planning another trip to the Andes after I graduate.

While I’ve learned a lot through nontraditional education, like study abroad, research, and community involvement, I can’t overlook the skills I’ve learned in my classes at UTD. I see the world a bit differently. I can think a lot more critically about social issues and am driven to learn more about ancient cultures. I can climb a mountain and identify the geological structures around me. Oh, and I know a lot about volcanoes and dinosaurs. And rocks.

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