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Comps give students unique edge

Meg Cassidy and Angela Saoud | Monday, January 31, 2005

Saint Mary’s is a unique college in many ways – it’s all women, very small and based on Catholic foundations. But to any Saint Mary’s senior student, it is the senior comp that sets this school apart from the rest she rejected.

The College’s requirement for the Senior Comprehensive Project is rare in that all departments, regardless of one’s major, require it.

Political science professor Teresa Marcy said when she was a student at the College in 1959, comps were not a new requirement.

“My understanding is that this has always been a College requirement,” Marcy said. “The comprehensive has definitely changed over the years.”

Marcy said when she was a student, there were two parts to the comp – a several hour essay exam prepared by the department and the GRE exam in the student’s area of study.

She also said some major changes had been made to the comp before she started working in academic administration in 1978.

“For one, the GRE’s have been replaced by an Undergraduate Record Exam (URE),” Marcy said. “The second change was the replacement of the departmental exam for some majors by a project of some sort – research project, production of a play – something appropriate to the particular major.”

After a time, there were even more changes to the comp, Marcy said. One involved the elimination of the URE, because some departments had lodged complaints that it was inappropriate for the curriculum they were teaching.

After these changes, departments had sole responsibility for organizing and administering their comps.

“There is quite a bit of variation across departments, but the comprehensives to me seem very appropriate for the different majors,” Marcy said. “They used to be very uneven, in terms of difficulty, but I think this situation has improved over the years.”

Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs Nancy Nekvasil said she thinks the stringent project makes Saint Mary’s stand out from the crowd of similar schools.

“I think Saint Mary’s is unusual across the country for requiring a senior comprehensive,” Nekvasil said.

She acknowledged while many schools have other rigorous senior graduation requirements, Saint Mary’s is unique because it requires a comprehensive project “across the board for every discipline and in every department.”

The specific requirements for the comps vary drastically between departments. The business department does group projects, where each group profiles and analyzes a company during the course of a semester. The theater majors each direct a play. Math and science majors do major research or prolonged experiments, on which they write a paper and give a presentation. Biology majors begin their comps during spring semester junior year. For education majors, their comp is centered on their semester of student teaching. Finally, art majors’ comps are presented in the form of a gallery show where they can actually sell their pieces.

Most comps involve a major writing component, which incorporates a great deal of research and in-depth expertise on a subject. Nekvasil said the writing aspect of this requirement is what makes it such an asset for focusing on one’s future beyond college.

Associate Director for Career Opportunities Jeff Roberts said whether students are applying to graduate schools, or marketing oneself to employers, the comp is invaluable.

“[This is a] culmination of an exciting academic experience that can be presented in a concrete form,” Roberts said.

English writing major Allison Roche completed her comp last semester.

“The actual experience was valuable,” she said. “It helped me realize I need some time off before I go into a graduate school program and work extensively on one project.”

The English writing comp is run as a seminar program during the course of fall semester, which Roche said helps lessen the stress by spreading out the process. Roche also said she was glad to have been able to finish her comp during fall semester

Senior Katherine Moran has a bit of a different perspective, because as a humanistic studies major, she is in the midst of a three-week comp intensive.

The humanistic studies comp consists of a large thesis paper – either creative or analytical in content – that incorporates important aspects of everything one has read and learned in the program.

“It shows seniors how much we’ve learned here,” Moran said.

Even though the comp process is overwhelming at times, Moran said she appreciates how it encourages close interactions with the professors in her department.

“They really challenge us to dig deeper, and I don’t think you’d be able to have that personal asset in a larger school,” Moran said.

And despite the long hours and bouts of complaining among students, Marcy said in her time, she never saw a serious proposal to remove comps as a requirement.

“They contribute to the integration of learning, something everyone sees as a goal of a

liberal education,” Marcy said. “Students sometimes complain about them when they

are in the process, but most praise them after completion.”

Roberts said though the process provides significant stress, it has its benefits.

“The process is proactive for transitioning into one’s career because both the process and the final product help one focus their creative thinking on one dimension of their major in a way that they will them be able to concretely show it to someone else,” he said.

“I don’t think that the students always recognize how important and beneficial it is until afterwards,” Nekvasil said. “But the result is very impressive to potential employers and in applying to graduate schools.”

Moran seemed to be in agreement with that statement as she glanced at the pile of books next to her.

“I know I’ll be glad I did it in the end, but the next two weeks are going to be – I’ll say busy,” she said.