JANUARY 2010 | VOL. 10 NO. 5  
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Cherney Says She’s "Scaffolding" For Students Progress
 Pam Adams Vaughn
Features Editor
Creighton University

I think of you often, and many times I fondly recount to my friends how crucial you were in helping me get off to a great start in my research career! You have touched so many lives at Creighton, and I am just so happy to be in that number...

It’s safe to say that Creighton’s Dr. Isabelle Cherney has a following – and it’s one that doesn’t seem to end at graduation.

Her e-mails regularly pop with messages from former students; her voicemail is sprinkled with calls from protégés from all over the U.S. and beyond.

What is there about Dr. Cherney, herself a Creighton alumna, that inspires such a connection among her students and graduates?

One student may have caught it just about right: It may have to do with Cherney’s abundant confidence in them. “We always live up to your expectations, even if we think we can’t.”

This professor of Psychology and director of Creighton’s Honors Program describes herself quite humbly as “the scaffolding” for her students’ progress. “I sometimes dream for them. I feel like their mother, their confidante.”

Named Nebraska’s Professor of the Year in 2007, Cherney joined only 50 professors nationwide to be so honored by the Carnegie Foundation and CASE (the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education). She was among those chosen from a field of 300 candidates across the country.

And, when Creighton President the Rev. John P. Schlegel, S.J., wanted the Honors Program redesigned in 2005, she and colleague Geoffrey Bakewell, Ph.D., were their president’s go-to people for the project.

Cherney says the Honors Program today really pulls together the Creighton mission, forming “men and women for and with others,” with cura personalis, care of the person, and the magis, an Ignatian phrase meaning “the more,” as in “doing more for God.”

The Creighton program begins during the freshman year for 50 chosen students. Living on the ninth floor of Swanson Residence Hall, students begin with an examination of the intellectual tradition of the West, from the viewpoint of two different disciplines, Classical and Near-Eastern Studies, and Theology.

Next, Honors 101 takes students from the beginning of the Christian era to the start of the Renaissance. Then, in the fall of their sophomore year, students consider the challenges to and influences on the Christian era, including the role of science.

Five sources and methods (research) courses further augment the curriculum. Soon students begin their research with a faculty mentor.

At Honors Day, their senior year, 50 poster presentations go forth as students share their research with the Creighton community.

Creighton’s retention rate in the Honors Program? It’s 100 percent, says Cherney, and faculty compete to teach the courses, she avers. Entering its fifth year this fall, Creighton’s Honors Program graduated its first four-year class this past May.

Added to Cherney’s role in the Honors Program are her obligations as professor of Psychology, and, here, once again, she could never even conceive of stinting her students.

Typically, Cherney has 15 to 20 undergraduates doing research with her. Not all, she says, are Psychology majors.

Her primary fields of interest are offshoots of her earlier work, specifically, how gender affects memory.

Today, that research has taken many paths, including the childhood roots of women’s reluctance to choose careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Were children’s leisure activities having an influence? Cherney’s research suggested “yes,” and she discovered how soon gender enters into the equation. Boys, but not girls, were being nudged early on into activities that help mold spatial abilities, for example, which now appear to be selected for rather than “hard-wired.”

Another area of research interest for Cherney is in the field of eyewitness memory – and its notorious ability to fill in unrelated – and, in some cases, fictional, details.

But what seems to knit together all of Cherney’s academic pursuits is her sense of unremitting obligation to her students.

“People cared for my success when I was a student,” Cherney, BA’96 and summa cum laude, recalls, so she feels it naturally falls to her to put forth the same kind of effort as a professor today.

Cherney’s students have presented for at least the past six years at “Posters on the Hill,” a Council On Undergraduate Research event featuring students discussing their research with the nation’s lawmakers.

Her students have also presented at conferences across the country, from Boston to San Antonio to Los Angeles. Two honors students will attend the University of Glasgow in Scotland this coming spring where they will take a sources and methods course on the Scottish enlightenment. (Glasgow partners with Creighton’s honors program.) “I’d like to see at least 50 percent of our students go abroad,” Cherney adds.

Many of her students are exceptionally bright. One, a research student, graduated from Creighton at 18 with a 4.0 grade-point average. He worked for a year in AmeriCorps, she said, and then taught English in France.

Soon “he decided he wanted to become the next prosecutor of the United States,” Cherney says. “He aced the LSAT and is now at Yale Law School.”

Typically, however, Cherney’s students take a more normal academic trajectory, and often worry about getting everything done.

As their paths cross during the average school year, her students are convinced that their professor is “organized because I am Swiss.”

But Cherney says that her students can learn to run their lives in a more orderly fashion. “I tell them: You don’t have to do everything at the same time!”

It would be anyone’s hectic day as Cherney and I wrap up our interview. Her planner bulges with meetings and conferences, many of them with students.

But this small space in her day encourages reflection about those nearest to the heart of her life work.

“Bring me any student,” Cherney asserts, “and I will change them. They will see my enthusiasm, my passion. It makes every difference if you love your job.”