Being the Change

Unconfined challenges

Amanda Kuhnley, JMU honors student and Dingledine Scholar

She wanted a good challenge — that's why she chose JMU

By Jamie Marsh
Amanda Kuhnley's ('11) academic experience appeared in the Fall 2010 "Madison" magazine. She is just one of many examples of JMU students working with professors to craft unique and challenging interdisciplinary career paths.

Amanda Kuhnley

Amanda Kuhnley ('11) likes a good challenge — or four. This honors student and Dingledine Scholarship recipient has two majors — integrated science and technology, and art history — as well as two minors — studio art and classical studies — and a monster senior thesis that will meld all of these interests into one incredible project.

"Amanda is a perfect example of a student carving out exactly what she needs from JMU to pursue a very specific interdisciplinary career path," — thesis adviser ISAT professor Ron Kander

"Make my own challenges"

"This is why I chose JMU," she says, "because I wanted a challenge." Yet JMU was the furthest thing from her mind as a high-school senior. Kuhnley had been accepted at an older elite college, but her theater director at Bishop Sullivan Catholic High in Virginia Beach kept raving about JMU, his alma mater. "He completely transformed my outlook," Kuhnley says.

It was during her campus visit that she fell in love with the people she met and realized she would "never be a number" at JMU. "My choice was to go to [another school], where I would fall into their tradition with the pressure of hundreds of years of scholars bearing down upon my shoulders, or go to JMU where I could be part of an innovative and inspiring family and make my own challenges."

JMU offers a different approach to science

Before arriving as a freshman, she declared both art history and integrated science and technology as majors, even though she considered science her worst subject. She was attracted to JMU's "different approach" to science — a broader, more collaborative environment with lots of teamwork and hands-on learning. "The professors in the College of Integrated Science and Technology promised a chance to participate in undergraduate research. That was vital in my choice," she says. "At JMU, it's not totally about the grade; the ability to think critically and to show compassion to others is a large measure of success."

"I want to be the person in the middle who can communicate with the scientists and the artists and the historians."

At first, because art and science didn't seem terribly related, she got "some push-back" from academic advisers. Now four years later, she is merging these fields not only to help her JMU professors but also to help future students. Each Friday, she interns in the Madison Art Collection identifying potentially fake items. If Kathryn Stevens, director of the Madison Art Collection, questions a piece, she has Kuhnley's unique expertise in materials analysis. Last semester when Stevens doubted a Babylonian cylinder seal in the collection, Kuhnley quickly verified it was not Babylonian at all after using a giant scanning electron microscope in ISAT to search for traces of lapis lazuli rock. Kuhnley believes this crossing of traditional boundaries makes her an "anti-specialist." "I want to be the person in the middle who can communicate with the scientists and the artists and the historians," she explains. This summer, she did just that while spending a month in Malta as part of an ISAT Study Abroad program. Trip adviser Paul Goodall says all 29 students on the trip completed an independent project specially designed for them. "With Amanda, we set up something where she could merge her ISAT and art history majors. The Island of Malta is in the middle of the Mediterranean, and it's been a hub for trade and pirate activity for centuries. It has lots of artifacts and art that can be analyzed and evaluated to determine their age and the identity of the culture involved in creating them. This is the kind of work Amanda hopes to pursue after graduation."

Amanda Kuhnley

Carved out a specific interdisciplinary path

As soon as she returned this summer, Kuhnley embarked on her ultimate test — a senior thesis project that involved collaborating with German colleagues, building all of the lab experiments for ISAT's new engineering course and teaching the labs to other JMU students.

"Amanda is a perfect example of a student carving out exactly what she needs from JMU to pursue a very specific interdisciplinary career path," explains her thesis adviser ISAT professor Ron Kander. Kuhnley acknowledges the project will be intense in part because she'll be graded both on the written part and her teaching abilities.

It is extremely rare for undergraduate students to co-teach courses or serve as teaching assistants at JMU, but Kuhnley has had practice thanks to Calculus professor Paul Goodall. "I stood in front of my peers and answered questions at the chalkboard," Kuhnley says. "My leadership skills and confidence grew tremendously, and I think I was able to really help several people." Goodall concurs and adds that, "Amanda is almost too good to be true. She runs extra help sessions each Friday afternoon and she looks for every opportunity to give back. For example, normally we check over the entire homework assignment for answers and then maybe give detailed feedback on three or four problems. Amanda tries to grade every problem to help students learn more." And her extra effort paid off. When students were asked to evaluate their experience in freshman calculus, Kuhnley got the highest score. Goodall says with a chuckle: "She even scored higher than me, the professor!"

"Take advantage of the small-school feel. Form relationships with your professors ... because of them, I love JMU."

In addition to questions about calculus, her peers sometimes ask Kuhnley how she gets it all done. "I have really good time management skills and a lot of drive and ambition. Last semester, I had classes from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. but they were all completely different, so I stayed interested. I live on campus to be close to professors and other students, and I try to never turn down an opportunity."

Never turn down an opportunity

Her life outside of academia includes intramural softball, dance classes at the University Recreation Center, a private reading club led by her freshman English professor and attending JMU Theater II performances. She also volunteers for Make Your Mark on Madison — a student leadership program that pairs freshmen with junior and senior mentors. In the JMU Honors Program, Kuhnley is helping create another mentoring program that will begin in 2011.

Kuhnley is grateful to professors like Kander and Goodall because "they've experienced life and now they want to teach me about it." Her advice to new JMU students: "Take advantage of the small-school feel. Form relationships with your professors and then work hard to match their efforts. … I want my professors to know that because of them, I love JMU."

Learn more about the Madison Experience.

Learn more about the Honors Program.

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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