Explore – and make college worth it

Jeannie Loeb

Senior Lecturer and Director of Instructional Development, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience

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When Jeannie Loeb’s parents fled North Korea many decades ago, they took almost nothing with them. But their story of escape offered a powerful lesson for Loeb, one she carries with her to this day.

“Your possessions can be taken away from you, but an education can’t be,” Loeb said. “If you have a good mind and a good education, you can always rebuild your life and make a future for yourself.”

Her parents’ struggle to remake their lives, and their decision to emigrate to the United States to provide better opportunities for their children, gave Loeb a deep sense of determination. She knew that college would be in her future, though she had no idea exactly how.

“My parents always pushed us hard, but they couldn’t really give much practical advice,” she said. “They knew I needed to go to college, but they didn’t know what I was supposed to do when I got there.”

Her mother attended college in South Korea, but that experience didn’t help much when it came time for Loeb to apply for schools in the United States. Untangling all of the different majors, the extracurricular activities and the social norms of American higher education was a huge challenge.

“Looking back on it now, I don’t think I understood at the time that I was missing all of this information,” Loeb said. “It was hard to even know what I didn’t know.”

Today, as a professor in psychology and neuroscience at UNC-Chapel Hill, Loeb sees many of her own students working to figure out the basics of college life. And coming from a first-generation background, she also recognizes the unique strengths those students bring to the classroom.

“So many of those students arrive with a lot of real-world experience, a lot of discipline and hard work that comes from holding a job or helping out with family,” she said. “My parents really gave me and my brother a strong work ethic, and that’s something you
can build on.”

One of the toughest lessons, she found, was knowing when to ask for help. She grew up thinking it was impolite to talk to professors outside the classroom — that she was supposed to figure everything out on her own.

“Of course, that’s the exact opposite of the advice I give to my students today!” she said. “You have to build those relationships with faculty and staff, and those people
want to hear from you and help you.”

For Loeb, that means tailoring her teaching methods to better serve students from a wide variety of backgrounds. She studied behavioral neuroscience, and she has a deep interest in the way people learn and process information. That has given her plenty of insight into the factors that influence student success, and she is a strong advocate for more flexible approaches to teaching.

The work reminds her of the difficult transition she had to make between high school and college. Instead of memorizing facts and formulas, professors expected her to ask questions and think independently about broad topics.

“It was a very different style of studying and learning, and it took me a while to adjust,” she recalled. “I always had fantastic grades in high school, but not my first semester in college.”

She persisted, though, leaning on friends and professors for guidance. She not only found her footing as an undergraduate, but went on to earn an advanced degree in a field she absolutely loves. That’s what college is all about — discovering something that sets your mind on fire.

“Explore, and make college worth it,” she said. “Make it worth the sacrifices that you, your parents, and your family have made to help you get here.”

By Eric Johnson