December 20, 2008
TC3 student earns acclaim
N.Y. Sociological Society grants him best undergraduate paper honor
DRYDEN — Ben Currens is starting to get used to being not just a student but an award-winning scholar.
He could not have imagined such a thing, after struggling to graduate from high school in Lexington, Ky., then spending more than six years in the Army.
Not that he lacked a pedigree in academics. His father, James, is a state hydrogeologist who discovered and mapped 90 miles of Mammoth Cave National Park’s 365 miles of caves. His mother, Debra, has a bachelor’s degree and makes 19th century clothing patterns for Civil War re-enactors and museums.
But now, after three semesters at Tompkins Cortland Community College, Currens not only has set his sights on a career in geology, he has tasted success in social sciences as well.
Currens, 26, wrote a paper that was named the best undergraduate paper at October’s meeting of the New York Sociological Society in Buffalo.
He developed the paper during an independent study with Professor Jeanne Cameron, who guided him in revising it during the summer.
“He’s a gem,” Cameron said. “I love my students, but I get one or two during the semester that make me realize why I am a teacher.”
Currens says he was lucky to graduate from high school. His teachers steered him to advanced courses but he always dropped them, too intent on goofing off and hanging out.
Intent on following his father into geology — “I want his job” — Currens now says he has discovered how much he loves writing and is intrigued by sociology.
He fits in not just with his family but with his wife, Peggy’s. A doctoral student in linguistics at Cornell University, she will be the third generation in her family to earn a doctorate.
The couple, who live in Ithaca, came to the area because of Peggy’s studies. Ben decided it was time to attend college but had never taken the SAT or ACT, and his high school transcript did not show promise, so he enrolled at TC3 in liberal studies and math science.
Ben had been discharged from the Army after one tour of Afghanistan and two tours of Iraq, out of Kentucky’s Fort Campbell. Twice, he had been stop-lossed — called back to active duty by the U.S. government when he was supposed to be done.
He does not talk much about his time patrolling the two war zones. The first time he did try to describe those years was last spring, when he and two other TC3 students who were veterans decided to answer students’ questions in a panel.
“We had about 30 to 40 people, and they just let us talk, mostly,” he said.
“It was late April, late in the semester, so I warned him that he might not get many people,” Cameron said. “Well, the room is designed for maybe 30 people, and it was packed, people were listening from out in the hall. It was very emotional. It was one of the best events I’ve attended at TC3.”
Currens told the crowd about his time with the infantry that invaded Saddam International Airport in his first tour in 2003, and his patrols of the notorious Sadr City in his second tour in 2006.
“Personally, I think the war was an enormous mistake,” he said. “Nothing in the future could fix it. At the same time, I think we should stay until we clean up the mess.”
Asked if he feels lucky to have returned safely to the U.S., Currens said, “I feel like a lot of my luck has been used up — I had some close calls more than once.”
His winning sociology paper focused on social reproduction of class: how social classes continue existing social structures to preserve their advantage, using school as a main mechanism.
The paper grew from a semester-long project last spring in a course taught by Jeanne Cameron. Students had to interview someone and find a topic in sociology to fit them.
Currens interviewed his wife and wrote about the ways her family influenced her to seek a doctorate.
“The environment people experience will prepare them for a similar environment,” he said. “They will be channeled into those areas. It’s not exact. They’re taught certain habits and those habits will help them at a later date.”
Cameron said Currens’ thinking was so deep, and he did much more research than required, that she saw the paper’s potential and submitted it for competition at the conference, along with having Currens and three other students present their work as a panel.
She was thrilled that his paper was chosen the best among undergraduates from both two-year and four-year colleges. Currens was more surprised.
“My first thought was, they must not have had many submissions,” he said of hearing his name called. “I haven’t seen myself as being academic.”
Peggy Currens has three more years before her doctorate is done, so Ben plans to pursue a degree in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Among the college’s majors are two he likes: science of earth systems and development sociology.
How he might combine them remains to be seen.
“Ben is a Renaissance man,” Cameron said. “He could be a creative writer. He could combine science and writing. Really, he could do so many things.”
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