A Chance to Teach

May/June 2002

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The seeds of Orlando Lara’s teaching career were planted last March when he traveled to the Arizona-Mexico border as part of an alternative spring break trip. For Elizabeth Aab, the pivotal moment was when two planes slammed into the World Trade Center on September 11 while she was eating breakfast a few miles away at her childhood home in midtown Manhattan.

Under a new ASSU program called Student Initiated Courses, Lara, ’03, and Aab, ’02, were able to share their knowledge and curiosity with fellow undergraduates—as their instructors. The program, introduced last year, allows students who obtain faculty sponsorship to teach one- to two-unit academic courses. Last quarter, the program offered five courses, ranging from a five-student seminar on Ayn Rand, to Understanding 9/11: Its Causes, Context and Consequences, which attracted 70 students.

Undergraduate instructors aren’t new to Stanford. Beginning in the 1960s, students often taught seminars as part of Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues. But the program was eliminated during budget cuts in the early 1990s, and nearly a decade passed before the ASSU launched Student Initiated Courses.

“This is about students helping to shape the intellectual climate of Stanford,” says Shannon Ashford, ’02, one of the program’s co-directors. Typically, the student instructors have already studied their subject areas extensively, she says. The ASSU provides them with training on how to teach, as well as funds for class expenses like photocopies and speaker honoraria.

Lara, who recently taught Documenting the Undocumented: “Illegal” Migrations across the U.S.-Mexico Border, is grateful to the program for providing the “mechanism to put something like this together, the encouragement that other students are doing the same thing. It gave me an idea of the possibility that I could do this,” he says.

And Aab, one of nine students co-leading the course on September 11, lauds the opportunity to learn by teaching: “This has been the best experience academically I’ve had at Stanford, hands down.”

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