Giving students the ‘Owl Edge’

Ask any Owl what stands out about their Rice experience, and you will undoubtedly hear about their unique exposure to academic rigor and cutting-edge resources, both in and out of the classroom. From the thrill of O-week to first-class learning opportunities that prepare students for personal and professional success after graduation, alumni often point to the Rice education that has provided them with their unique advantage.

It is the distinctiveness of Rice that inspired the Initiative for Students, a three-year volunteer engagement and fundraising effort that invites the worldwide Rice community of alumni, parents and friends to strengthen the Rice student experience and give students “the Owl Edge.” Rice University President David Leebron previewed the initiative in a special Rice Day announcement Oct. 12, and the initiative will formally debut at Rice Homecoming & Reunion Nov. 7-9.

“This focus on the student experience comes at a time when we must demonstrate the value of higher education as never before and ensure that every student learns how to think in the classroom and apply their knowledge in the world,” Leebron said. “Our students are what distinguish Rice, and we must ensure that our students have every opportunity to fulfill their potential.”

The three pillars of the initiative are focused on providing undergraduate and graduate students with the opportunities, skills and insights they need to lead a life of extraordinary impact.

1. Remarkable talent

The first priority of the initiative — remarkable talent — focuses on paving the way for the most talented students to find their place at Rice, regardless of their financial backgrounds, by raising $100 million in student aid.

“One of Rice’s greatest attributes is its commitment to need-blind admissions,” said Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Darrow Zeidenstein, referring to Rice’s policy to accept all qualified applicants without regard to their financial circumstances.

“We are one of a shrinking number of top-tier universities dedicated to supporting the widest possible spectrum of talent. It’s not just who we are, but it’s also a major competitive advantage as we continue to recruit the best students from around the world. Rice’s generous financial aid policy plays a significant role in this effort.”

Lovett College junior Sophie Eichner is just one student who has benefited from Rice’s generous financial aid, made possible by the support of Rice’s alumni, parents and friends. She united the architecture and engineering students who created “Soundworm,” Rice’s first student-designed public art installation. Composed of yellow tubes at right angles, the structure includes a series of speakers that pipe in ambient sound from microphones across campus. Both a work of art and an engineering achievement, it exemplifies the type of interdisciplinary collaboration Eichner is passionate about.

“Whatever problem you tackle, whatever space you want to bring to life — you get the best solutions if you draw inspiration from different fields,” she said.

Eichner is also acutely aware of the role that financial aid has played in bringing her to Rice and enabling her to tailor her experience to her diverse interests.

“Originally I was going to go to art school and had a lot of scholarship offers, but getting a scholarship for the Rice School of Architecture really changed everything for me,” she said. “Now I’m on the way to becoming an architect, designer and artist who doesn’t just build in the world, but engages that world to change it.”

Christopher Janwong McKiggan, an award-winning pianist and a doctoral student at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music, also credits monetary support from Rice with bringing out the peak of his abilities. An accomplished international performer, he enlists and commissions composers across the globe to reimagine traditional folk music through his project titled “Resonance of Hope.”

“At Rice, we have a very well-rounded program that lets you get in touch with everything you need to go forward,” he said. “Whether for a job or for a performance, we’re covered.”

2. Unparalleled education

The second priority of the initiative — unparalleled education — is concerned with engaging students in a world-class academic experience by investing in exceptional teaching and learning programs and by expanding student research opportunities both on and off campus.

Wiess College junior Peter Cabeceiras, a first-generation college student from northern California, transferred to Rice in fall 2012 to take advantage of both the first-rate academic experiences on campus and the university’s strong ties to the Texas Medical Center.

“[I chose Rice because] other universities do not have the resources that the Texas Medical Center has in such immensity or close proximity,” Cabeceiras said. “I can take things I’ve learned at Rice and apply them to solve real-world problems next door.”

With the support of Rice professors, Cabeceiras has been able to take advantage of two research opportunities at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. In the lab of Lynda Chin, professor and chair of the Department of Genomic Medicine at MD Anderson, Cabeceiras helped discover that a common mutation in melanoma can inhibit the success of certain cancer treatments, and he is working with a group to develop more effective therapies for that mutation. In the lab of Cullen Taniguchi at MD Anderson, Cabeceiras is helping to enhance radiation treatments for pancreatic tumors.

Rice hopes to open up more opportunities like Cabeceiras’s by offering summer research grants to undergraduate students and competitive research stipends to graduate students from every discipline, as well as build upon the university’s research strengths by investing in graduate programs that enhance Rice’s academic profile.

One example of a rapidly growing research strength is the recently launched Rice Initiative for the Study of Economics, or RISE, which is led by political economist Antonio Merlo, the George A. Peterkin Professor of Economics and chair of Rice’s Department of Economics. Since joining Rice last July, Merlo has focused on raising the profile of the economics program by recruiting faculty who combine premier research and dedicated teaching.

“Having the right professor makes all the difference to graduate students,” said Michael Shashoua, a former Fulbright scholar who transferred from the University of Pennsylvania to pursue his doctorate in economics at Rice. “Dr. Merlo has been able to create opportunities at Rice that you couldn’t find anywhere else.”

One of the draws for Shashoua was the opportunity to work with Associate Professor of Economics Flavio Cunha, a well-known labor economist specializing in human capital formation and labor income inequality. Another draw was Rice’s location, which is well-suited for studying pressing national issues like undocumented immigrants and their labor participation decisions.

“Rice has all the perfect synergies for the research I’m interested in,” Shashoua said.

3. Extraordinary impact

The final priority of the initiative — extraordinary impact — emphasizes the importance of giving every student the chance to connect their learning with hands-on experiences that put their analytical, entrepreneurial and leadership abilities to the test, including new job shadowing and career development programs being offered across disciplines and majors.

Political science major Becky Satterfield, a McMurtry College senior, has made the most of connecting her education with real-world experience as an intern at a U.S. Embassy in Vienna, where she put her language skills to use as a translator and explored what it takes to be a diplomat. The transformative experience, courtesy of the Social Sciences Gateway Program, inspired her to pursue an international career.

“I have to go out and see things the way other people see them,” Satterfield said. “You can’t have a good perspective if you stay in one place.”

Satterfield said Rice’s opportunities to study abroad — and in her case, focus on political science and international relations — “really won me over.”

“My first experience with Gateway was transformative. Through that, I realized I actually want to work abroad,” Satterfield said. “Through Rice, I have had the chance to do things that don’t fit into the traditional college experience.”

Association of Rice Alumni Board of Directors President Donald Bowers ’91, assistant vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank in Houston, benefited firsthand from an active and engaged alumni body as a Rice student. As an alumnus, he has leveraged his professional network to help give students the “Owl Edge” by connecting them with internship opportunities at the Federal Reserve Bank.

Bowers said that the ARA “welcomes and fully supports” the new initiative.

“Alumni want to ensure that current students succeed,” Bowers said, “and the initiative will provide a wide range of opportunities for all members of the Rice community, including parents and friends, to connect with students and alumni, and share their unique Rice perspective – their Owl Edge. The ARA is committed to helping today’s students achieve their Owl Edge as well.”

Like Bowers, Michol Ecklund ’97, an ARA board member and deputy general counsel of commercial and operations services at Marathon Oil Company, benefited greatly from the support of the Rice network as a student and young alumna.

“My alumni connections really helped as I was searching for job opportunities,” Ecklund said. “When you’re going out and meeting different people, having the common bond of a Rice experience definitely puts you at an advantage.”

Ecklund is actively engaged in helping current students and young alums connect with opportunities at Marathon and other companies. She also participates in networking events, roundtables and meetings with students on campus to share her personal experiences and give them a sense of what her professional life is like.

“The focus on hands-on experiences as a way to help students find their passions is what this initiative is all about,” Ecklund said. “Being able to help ignite these passions in the current students and the students yet to come is what gets me really excited about this initiative and lets me know that I can help make a difference.”

“To thrive as an institution and to fulfill our responsibility to students, we must nurture their strengths and provide them with the knowledge, experiences and skills to succeed,” Leebron said. “All of us, whether we’re here on campus, in San Francisco or in Shanghai, have a tremendous role to play in continuing to shape the Rice experience.”

Throughout homecoming weekend, alumni will have the opportunity to share their “Owl Edge” experience at pop-up stations around campus, including at Brochstein Pavilion and the alumni tailgate and brunch, located at Rice Stadium from 8:30 to 11 a.m. Nov. 8. For info on how to contribute to or volunteer to help with the Initiative for Students, visit



About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.