VSU Student Chosen to Participate in Summer Philosophy Institute
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Jul 18, 2012, 12:36
At the end of the month, Virginia State University student Shari Maynard will head to New Jersey to attend Rutgers University’s Summer Institute for Diversity in Philosophy with 15 other students from around the nation.
Maynard, who will begin her senior year this fall, was selected from an applicant pool of approximately 50 students based on the merit of her writing samples, her academic achievements and the remarks in the letters of recommendation she submitted.
Dr. Howard McGary, who runs the 20-year-old program, said that most students who are selected by the committee have a grade point average of 3.5 or higher on a 4.0 scale.
“All the students are really top notch students,” he said.
There is also another quality he considers essential in the young philosophers invited to attend the summer institute.
“You have to have what is called a good philosophical imagination,” he said. “We’re looking at people, even at this early stage, who can recognize a philosophical problem and then have something to say about it.”
He said that the “diversity” in the title of the institute means they don’t look for students with backgrounds in any specific strain of philosophy.
“We want people to say I have a diverse perspective. I’m looking at these problems, these issues and topics, maybe topics that people haven’t explored before.” McGary said. “That’s our goal.”
Maynard, who is pursuing a minor degree in philosophy and a major in public administration, applied to the program based on the recommendation of VSU professor, Dr. Majid Amini. Maynard took Amini’s introductory philosophy course as a requirement for her major, even though she was not initially excited by the idea.
“At the outset, I was admittedly reluctant about the class and I was very unsure about exactly what philosophy was at the time,” Maynard said. “However, once I actually started the class, and had the opportunity to understand the nature of the field, I was sold, so to speak.”
What sold her on the field was the way it made her think.
“What primarily draws me to philosophy is the degree of depth and analysis and variety of topics that are studied by philosophers,” she said. “Also, the discipline has a way of forcing you to think critically about various facets of life that you would normally take for granted.”
Although she is particularly interested in the philosophy of science and personal identity, Maynard said she is interested in the entire field, making her a perfect candidate for the diverse learning experience offered by the summer institute.
As a female of African descent who was raised in the West Indies on the island of Nevis, Maynard is also a member of several groups frequently considered to be under represented in the field. She said she hopes participating in programs like the summer institute will encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to consider studying philosophy.
“I hope to gain a lot of things from my participation,” Maynard said, describing her hopes for the seven day program. “ First, I hope to be able to acquire as much knowledge as possible with regards to the various topics that will be discussed by the presenters. I’m sure that the opportunity to explore these new topics will pique my interest to do further research on my own in order to enrich my perspectives and my understanding of related topics as well. I’m also sure that the institute will afford me the opportunity to network and seek lasting relationships with both established professional philosophers and rising philosophers like myself. I’m quite eager to learn about and interact with both of these groups of people.”
McGary said those are exactly the kinds of things students at the institute experience as they learn more about what graduate programs in philosophy are like and what it means to be a practitioner in a field many associate with marble busts of people in togas and men in frock coats and ruffly collars.
“Many students are unaware that there are professional philosophers. Most people think of philosophers as people who are all dead,” he said. “We get [the students] to see what the life of a philosopher is about, what philosophers work on, what they care about, what their life at a university is like.”
The Summer Institute for Diversity in Philosophy gives the students a chance to make lifelong friends amongst their peers, meet mentors, and learn about funding options and scholarships available to them.
It also includes presentations from prominent guests, including the president of the American Philosophical Association and another element most young people want in their summer vacations.
“We try to let them have a little fun too,” McGary said.
When she finishes her undergraduate education at VSU next spring, Maynard, who is currently an intern at the United States Small Business Administration in Washington D.C., hopes to attend a graduate program that will allow her to combine her interest in philosophy with her interest in law.
“I hope to incorporate both law and philosophy in whatever institution I choose to attend after VSU,” she said.
Her top choices for graduate schools are Georgetown University, the University of Virginia and Duke University.
Dr. Mercedes Diaz, who assists McGary with the program, said that the students who participate go into many diverse fields, including journalism, publishing, law, medicine, education and government. One is even a comedian working in California who incorporates her knowledge of philosophy into her work.
“It gives you a lot of critical thinking skills that other majors do not,” Diaz said of philosophy and why it offers so many diverse career paths.