Six Degrees of St. Kate's
...that ultimately impacts student learning on campus or larger pockets of our world. As these four stories teach us: it pays to connect.
MARK BLEGEN AND USA CURLING
Giving freely of your time and talents without expectations of reward can sometimes lead to remarkable outcomes. That’s certainly the story behind St. Kate’s growing relationship with USA Curling.
If you let Mark Blegen tell the story, he’d say it was simply a series of random events. Blegen, associate professor of exercise and sport science, overheard a conversation of his daughter’s tennis coach, who was struggling with a piece of exercise science software required for a graduate school assignment. Blegen knew the software, offered to help her and ended up in contact with her professor.
Turns out her professor was Scott Riewald, the director of high performance for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). “I could have ignored the conversation, but I’m glad I didn’t,” he says. “That’s the thing St. Kate’s teaches: put yourself out there. You never know who you’re going to run into.”
Through a series of conversations, Blegen and Riewald discovered they had both worked for the USOC during the mid-1990s, but their paths never crossed.
“A few weeks later, Scott reached out to us. USA Curling recently designated Blaine as their training site. He asked if St. Kate’s would be willing to partner on a variety of performance-related issues,” says Blegen, who assembled an initial team from the exercise and sport science program that included faculty members Joshua Guggenheimer and Holly Willis, and students Katie Lenglet and Megan Schmid.
“It was pretty exciting to work with Olympic athletes,” says Lenglet. “Mark provided a great opportunity for us. His connections seem infinite!”
The USA Curling women’s team came on campus in January for blood work to establish each player’s micronutrient levels. Afterwards, Willis gave a talk on eating for performance. Blegen, Guggenheimer and the students traveled to Blaine later that day, gathering data on the men’s team during a world-qualifying event. The results provided the coaches with new or deeper insight into a player’s body
Blegen hopes the partnership with USA Curling will open up opportunities for student-led research projects. In the meantime, he shares this lesson learned: “Have the confidence to jump into the conversation. Simply saying ‘how can I help can lead to so many wonderful experiences.”
COMMUNITY WORK & LEARNING AND WISE
Like a tree whose roots run deep and stretch wide, some connections at St. Kate’s touch so many lives that it’s hard to quantify their reach. The University’s connection with the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE) is one such relationship.
Each year, the Center for Community Work and Learning pairs students with WISE, a St. Paul–based nonprofit founded 20 years ago to empower Asian, African and Latina girls and their families. This year was no different. Students from 10 St. Kate’s courses, ranging from nursing to communications studies, conducted service-learning projects with one WISE program, Girls Getting Ahead in Leadership (GGAL).
The bond that students build with GGAL participants is so strong that many students opt to stay on as volunteers long after their service-learning projects are over.
“We have a really high retention rate,” says Cheryl Field ’08, youth program supervisor for WISE, who adds that exposure to programs like GGAL offer important lessons in cultural competency. “Regardless of their background, students come to see the commonalities,” she explains. “Everyone has challenges in life and it’s about how you overcome them — and the GGAL girls have a very high threshold of resiliency.”
But getting at that resiliency takes time and patience. Mysee Chang ’13 served at WISE for two years, first as an intern, then as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow. Chang distinctly remembers the moment she burst out crying as she stood at a laser printer, printing out college schedules for a group of girls she mentored.
“The girls asked why I was crying and I told them, ‘You did it! Do you realize that this is your college schedule?’” she says.
When Chang met them two years prior, the girls lacked self confidence and would evade any questions about college or future plans. “The journey was so tough for these young women. At times they didn't have anything to eat or wear, their English was so poor at one point and they were suffocating from loads of homework. But they made it!” says Chang.
Chang is currently completing a Fulbright Fellowship in Laos. She once had aspirations for public policy work in Washington, D.C. but her experiences with WISE, and in Laos thus far, have shown her the power of change at the community level.
“I will forever be proud to say I went to St. Kate’s,” she says. “The community partnerships we have allow students to delve deep into social issues. As they work to serve the community, they are co-creating solutions and changing lives.”
NANCY HEITZEG AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Nancy Heitzeg can’t recall a time she hasn’t worked to raise awareness about the criminal justice system and the shocking level of racial disparities that pervade it. Her passion for social justice drives her to create partnerships within the system — partnerships that often inspire her students to get involved themselves and affect change.
“The U.S. has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners — most of whom are black,” says Heitzeg, professor of sociology and critical studies of race and ethnicity. “The prison industrial complex and school-to-prison pipeline are manifestations of structural racism in the United States.”
This self-described “activist educator” weaves information about the nation’s mass incarceration problems into every course she teaches, from “Sociology of Law” to the “American Criminal Justice System.” “This taken-for-granted prison nation raises key questions for students about justice, equity, opportunity and what our vision of U.S. democracy might alternatively be,” says Heitzeg, who serves as managing editor of the “Criminal Injustice” series for Critical Mass Progress.
Her annual J-term “Global Search for Justice” trips alternate locations between what she dubs the “old school” prison system of Louisiana to the “new school” prison system of California. During these trips, Heitzeg partners with numerous local organizations and individuals — like Helen Prejean, CSJ, the author of Dead Man Walking — to give her students a first-hand look at the issues and encourage dialogue.
She admits the visits to our nation’s largest prisons can be jarring for students. “The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is an old plantation — 18,000 acres with its own zip code!” she exclaims. “Nearly 80 percent of the inmates are black, and they pick cotton by hand. Unbelievable, but true.”
California’s correctional system — considered the birthplace of the modern prison industrial complex, says Heitzeg — is no better. “It’s the first state where we saw correctional spending outstrip educational spending,” she adds.
Just recently, Heitzeg co-founded the Coalition for Critical Change with University of St. Thomas law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds and community consultant William Smith IV. The nonprofit grew out of the National Moment of Silence for Ferguson. It focuses primarily on policing issues related to low-level offenses that disproportionately target young black males and feed the school-to-prison pipeline.
“The power of campus-community collaboration is found in the freedom of academic inquiry,” says Heitzeg.
She argues that small liberal arts colleges offer valuable research and information that’s not tied up in politics or money — information valuable to change the course of a social movement for the better.
“Sure, I could sit in an ivory tower, publish journal articles in the American Sociological Review, call it a day and go home,” she adds. “But St. Kate’s has always been about community and collaboration and social justice.”
Heitzeg’s social justice passion is contagious. Just ask Rita Richardson ’14. After earning her associate degree, Richardson was weighing her next options. A co-worker urged her to sit in on Heitzeg’s “Social Movements” class during a campus visit. “That hour really inspired and motivated me,” she says. “I was hooked and just had to attend St. Kate’s.”
No surprise, Heitzeg ended up being Richardson’s academic advisor. Richardson, who now holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology, is completing a year of AmeriCorps service at EMERGE Community Development, an organization that works predominantly with ex-offenders and at-risk youth on securing employment and housing. Her goal is to research criminal justice and lower incarceration rates — just like Heitzeg.
AMY HAMLIN AND “ART HISTORY THAT”
The humanities are not dying, as predicted in a recent controversial column in The New York Times. Rather, they are alive — and will remain relevant — as long as there are stalwarts like Amy Hamlin. The associate professor of art history spends much of her waking hours finding creative, new ways to reach students.
“Art History That” is her latest collaborative project. It comprises a blog, website and Facebook account focused in part on changing the educational model and saving the future of art history. Hamlin was inspired to start this project after participating in a Facebook conversation based on that contentious column. That online debate led her to partner with Karen Leader, an assistant professor of art history at Florida Atlantic University.
Hamlin and Leader are actively using social media to gain traction for Art History That. In addition to sharing their thoughts on forward-thinking art history initiatives, the duo is reaching out to others who care as deeply about the study of human culture. The ultimate goal is for Art History That to become the place to curate, crowdsource and collaborate on the future of art history.
“My generation and older have been trained to think within the ivory tower,” says Hamlin. “We’re trying to get out of that model, and move towards a more inclusive, accessible model.”
This approach resonates with Emma Flood ’15, the student assistant Hamlin enlisted to help with the project. Flood set up and populated the website (tinyurl.com/arthistorythat), and corresponding Facebook account.
“Art often comes with an aura of elitism. Yet art also represents universal truths and impulses — both asking and answering the question of what it means to be human,” says Flood. “We need to expand the discourse on art to make it accessible regardless of education and privilege.”
Dubbed a movement of sorts by colleagues, Art History That is rapidly gaining traction in the world of higher education. Hamlin and Leader hosted a provocative session at the 103rd Annual College Art Association conference in New York earlier this year. Presenters were asked to respond to the question: “What have you done for art history lately?”
In one of the most compelling presentations, Sarada Natarajan from the University of Hyderabad in India revealed how her students “failed miserably” when she attempted to teach art history through a conventional western lens. But when she tasked them to reconstruct masterpieces using the methods of the original artists, the students had a more “equitable dialogue with art periods and masters.”
The presentation so energized participants that Hamlin, Leader and Natarajan hope to form an international partnership. To keep the momentum going from the conference, the College Art Association also named Hamlin and Leader to a newly formed advocacy taskforce.
Knowing Flood’s goal to become a professor, Hamlin engaged her student in other tech-related awareness projects, like the international Art+Feminism Wikipedia movement
(tinyurl.com/stk-Wikinews). Flood enjoys being at the forefront of these projects, as well as witnessing the work that’s happening among the community’s academics.
“I’m getting a good sense of how to effectively work and enact change in your discipline,” she says. “Amy is a consummate professional. She’s a career role model for me in many ways, and is the kind of professor I aspire to be.”
So, long live Hamlin — and, yes, the humanities.
Curling photos by Rebecca Zenefski '10, by Rebecca Studios.
Photos of Amy and Emma by Ashley de los Reyes '15.
“I will forever be proud to say I went to St. Kate’s.” — Mysee Chang ’13, Fulbright scholar
(Learn more about Chang's Fulbright adventures.)