Sam Christensen shares her Augustana experience
Posted on June 7, 2012 by Christopher Thrall
Samantha Christensen (BA English ’12) shares a speech she wrote for the The Friends of the University of Alberta’s Annual General Meeting.
My experience at Augustana is embedded in research and academia, and the closely-knit community on the campus has supplemented my own understanding of scholarly leadership and the value of an integrative and well-rounded education.
I attended high school in Strathmore, which is a small rural community east of Calgary. It was there that I learned the value of small, integrative learning communities, so I was ecstatic to hear about the Augustana campus of the U of A during a post-secondary fair in my senior year of high school.
The decision to go to Augustana over a larger campus was one that just felt right for me; I was able to move to small city similar to Strathmore, which I loved, and I could learn in a small classroom environment based on student-professor approachable relationships and communal learning strategies. And, of course, I could still earn a U of A degree.
I’ve always had the most success in small classes where I could develop relationships with my teachers and form study groups with my peers, and after familiarizing myself with the campus through their presentations, admissions counselors, and their website, I decided that Augustana was the best decision for my learning needs, and it truly was the best decision I’ve ever made.
When I first started at Augustana, I was a biology major in a Bachelor of Science program, and I hadn’t even made it to the first day of classes before I switched to a Bachelor of Arts in Environment Studies. Environmental figures such as David Suzuki and, of course, Al Gore had convinced me that I wanted to save the world one fluorescent light bulb at a time, and I began my first year as an enthusiastic environmental debutante.
That lasted until I fatefully took my first economics course, and proudly scraped by with a C+. The professor provided constructive feedback and met with me countless times to work out my difficulties, but no matter how much work I put into my assignments I just couldn’t make my brain work in terms of supply and demand.
After my disastrous economics experience, I decided that I’m probably not cut out for environmental leadership, and recycling and making greener decisions is probably enough, so I bought a bike and switched to education. I was interested in teaching students in elementary, so by the first semester of my second year I was in my first education class. Sitting in the classroom with approximately 9 other students, I was eager to start on my exciting but not so well-thought-out career choice.
By the end of the 75-minute class, though, I was rushing back to my dorm room in tears because I had realized that I had absolutely no desire to teach primary or secondary school, and as my second year of university was beginning I still had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do.
The second day of my second year proved to be much more promising: I attended my first university-level English class. I was already looking forward to this class, because the prof had sent out a welcoming email explaining his background, his research interests, and stories about his children, and had asked us to send us a similar email to him in return.
Being in that classroom was the happiest I’d been in any class since I’d begun; every course I’ve taken at Augustana has been a great experience, and I’m still on first name basis with professors who’ve only taught me in my first or second years, but being in this English class was a particularly great experience. And it’s one that led to so many other amazing experiences, because after that first class I knew that I wanted to be in English.
The English classes I’ve had the privilege of being able to take have changed my life, and the small class sizes and close professor-student relationships have been influential aspects of my positive experiences in the English classroom. Typically my senior level English classes have had around 10-15 students in them, but I think the largest class I’ve been in, which was Contemporary Literature, had approximately 30 students. I know every English professor who has ever taught me, and have conversations with them regularly, whether formally or in passing on campus. From what I gather based on my peers’ experiences, these close student-professor connections are typical for the engaged student, and carry on into graduate studies and career paths.
I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Roxanne Harde in my third year, and after dropping her aboriginal literature class due to being, well, terrified of the heavy course work, I took her Reform Writing for Children course in the winter term. I’ve always gotten good grades, and my professors have provided me with positive feedback throughout my coursework, but I’d always felt like I sort of coasted through my classes relatively unnoticed. And this was exactly what I’d wanted since I began my university: I wanted to get through my degree unrecognized with a solid 3.5 GPA, and jump into some sort of career after receiving my BA.
This changed once I began my first seminar with Dr. Harde, and as she pushed me to do my best and work harder than I thought was even possible, I realized that I am absolutely in love with researching and it was even something I might want to do as a career. I would be in Dr. Harde’s office for an hour or two every week, and we discussed my research, which was on girls’ education and marriage in nineteenth-century children’s texts by women authors, along with my writing capabilities, future plans, and the possibility of graduate studies. For the first time ever I felt talented, and Dr. Harde was so supportive and encouraged me to transcend the academic boundaries I’d set out for myself. The fact that there were only 9 students in the seminar was a huge advantage, because the individuals I was working with were students I had known from the beginning of my English degree, and we all worked together and created a sort of research and paper writing community.
Toward the end of the semester, Dr. Harde offered to hire me as her summer research assistant, and those four months as an RA changed the way I understood my future. Those four months were the best time of my life, and last summer I had the opportunity to become published in an academic journal, copy edited and formatted manuscripts, researched a wide range of topics, from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal to Southern singers and song writers, and got a sense of the inner-workings of publishing.
Dr. Harde also encouraged me to design a directed reading course for the fall semester of my senior year, and I decided to look at food as an extension of social structure in nineteenth-century women’s coming-of-age literature. My research was original, and for four months I completely immersed myself in food and the nineteenth-century. I even found an American cookbook from 1898 that was my great-great-grandmother’s and tried my hand at a few recipes that resurfaced throughout the texts I was reading, like minced meat pie and bread pudding, which ended in disaster but still made me feel closer to the little cooks I was reading about.
I presented my paper at the Augustana Student Academic Conference, and the room was filled with my peers, professors, and even our Dean, Dr. Berger (which was a little nerve racking to say the least!) and I feel like that is an experience unique to Augustana: it’s a small enough campus that professors from all different disciplines can become involved in undergraduate research in various areas of study.
My paper ended up winning me the Outstanding Independent Work Award, and Dr. Harde and I are going to be working on expanding it and publishing it in a journal while I’m working for her again this summer, and I can’t help but think that I wouldn’t have had these amazing opportunities had I chosen to go to a larger campus. I was lucky enough to be recognized by Dr. Harde, and I was someone who prided myself on my ability to remain unnoticed. After immersing myself in undergraduate research and developing an understanding and appreciation of research culture with Dr. Harde last summer and this summer so far, I’ve completely reshaped my plans for the future and for the first time I feel confident in my career path.
My professors have been so supportive about my decision to start graduate studies in the Fall, and I’ve received meaningful advice and encouragement from professors of English, along with philosophy, art history, and even biology. By becoming involved in the tightly-knit community that Augustana prides itself on, I’m beginning my master’s program here at the U of A in the fall as a confident and well-rounded student, and I’ve made connections with Augustana students, professors, and staff that I’m confident will affect me well into my future.
Since beginning my degree in 2008, I’ve transformed from a shy, self-conscious, and generally lost individual to a confident and driven young adult, and I have Augustana’s supportive community to thank for giving me the extra push I needed to really understand my true potential.
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