Peaks and Professors takes office hours outside of the office.
Nine students and UCLA Department of Mathematics lecturer William Conley navigated a trail to Eagle Rock in Topanga State Park during Peaks and Professors’ first outdoors trip Saturday. The program pairs students and professors who have an interest in the outdoors, and coordinates hiking trips for them around the Los Angeles area. Coordinator Dana Tran said it fosters a more nuanced relationship between students and professors than “meet the professors” events held on campus, in part because of its natural setting.
“Both professors and students are multidimensional people,” the second-year neuroscience student said. “Nature is a good way to get to know people holistically.”
Tran, an avid hiker, first learned about the program from friends at the University of Southern California. Earlier in the month, she hiked alongside USC students and Abby Fifer-Mandell, the executive director of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab, who spoke with the small group of students about design thinking for product manufacturing.
“I had a casual and nice conversation with this faculty member that wasn’t even from my school, so I thought it would be a lot cooler to have that same connection with one from UCLA,” Tran said.
After the trip, she created a Peaks and Professors chapter at UCLA, reaching out to students and professors who seemed interested in the program. Tran and three of her friends started coordinating the program by searching Bruinwalk for positive reviews on prospective professors to get an idea of which instructors students would like to connect with more. They then contacted the instructors and asked if they would be interested in hiking. Tran said they wanted to include professors looking to further connect with the UCLA student body who also have some outdoors experience.
Conley, the first instructor to lead a trip, said he was happy to receive the invitation from the group since he’s always looking for opportunities both to hike and to connect with students. In addition to teaching classes such as Life Sciences 30B and Math 32A, Conley enjoys exploring the outdoors and has hiked terrains such as Joshua Tree National Park and Yosemite National Park. However, Saturday’s trip was his first time hiking to Eagle Rock.
Conley said he was looking forward to the trip because he wanted students to recognize that professors have their own lives outside of the office or classroom.
“Students tend to forget that,” he said. “They’re always surprised when they bump into me in Westwood or outside of class.”
He also said exploring the outdoors through hiking encourages students and professors to speak about subjects other than academics and learn about each other’s commonalities and passions, which fosters trust between them.
Trust and understanding is necessary in an instructor-student relationship, but is often hard to cultivate in an academic environment, said second-year physiological sciences student Jenny Sun. Sun, who is also a Peaks and Professors coordinator, said connecting with professors in a class of more than 400 students can be daunting.
“Because professors and instructors must deal with so many students from so many different classes, there is a stigma that they don’t really have time for students outside an academic setting,” she said. “Even office hours can get crowded.”
Hiking, however, is an intimate experience in an open space. Because of the informal settings and small group sizes, students and professors can better communicate with one another, which can be mutually beneficial, Sun said.
“Getting to know instructors in environments presented by Peaks and Professors might even help students do better in class,” she said. “You get a better understanding of how they think and structure their materials – you can then translate that to class.”
Instructors can also learn about UCLA students’ passions and interests, and that mutual understanding can help a campus with more than 40,000 students feel like a closer community, Sun said.
Harsh Gupta, a third-year applied mathematics student who has tutored under Conley, said the trip allowed him to learn more about the math instructor’s academic background. He related more to Conley after hearing about the lecturer’s undergraduate career path because Conley, like Gupta, had initially pursued another subject in college before realizing he was passionate about math.
“I resonated with his story because I came to UCLA under economics and switched to math, so it was humbling to know that even he experienced the same situation in college,” Gupta said.
Viviann Do, a first-year neuroscience student, said she shared a thoughtful conversation about SpaceX CEO Elon Musk with the math lecturer.
“Usually when I talk (to) my parents about this stuff, they don’t really care,” Do said. “But Professor Conley is also interested in Elon Musk, so we talked about the new Tesla and the SpaceX rockets. … That was definitely a bonding moment.”
Tran said she enjoyed witnessing the interactions and bonding between students and the lecturer on the trip and looks forward to fostering more connections. She said she also hopes the program will encourage students and professors to appreciate the outdoors.
“At the end of the day people who are involved in the trip enjoy exploring our surroundings and finding beauty,” she said. “There’s always that commonality.”