The Voice of St. Kate's
Kris Schmitz ’08 strives to help every caller feel at home.
BY AMY GAGE
Kris Schmitz's colleagues often call her the "voice of St. Kate's." That's an apt description for the College's telephone operator. She thinks of herself, too, as a linchpin or gatekeeper, as someone who answers people's questions, soothes their worries and sends them along the right path.
An articulate woman who chooses her words with care, Schmitz '08 takes a few moments to settle on a phrase that reflects the true role she plays at the College of St. Catherine, where she has worked for almost six years. "I'm the hospitality bridge," she says. "I look at myself as a bridge to connect everybody else out there to our community here."
Many callers initially are confused when they reach a live person after dialing (651) 690-6000, the general information line for both the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses. "Over 90 percent of them are expecting voicemail, that I'm automated," Schmitz says with a laugh, "not that I'm a real person at the other end of the line who cares about getting them to the absolute right spot in our community."
That work, which she performs from the lower level of Derham Hall, involves knowing "the neighborhood, the Twin Cities, the other colleges, the bus routes, the restaurants and hotels - and you have to be able to find anybody on campus."
Schmitz, 57, raised her daughter, Amber, alone. Having struggled for years to support her family, she both values and empathizes with society's laboring class, the invisible people who make colleges and corporations hum. She also relies on them to get her job done. "I am able to help our callers because of the alliances and collaborations I have with people in every department," says Schmitz, who began work at St. Kate's as a part-time security guard.
From secretaries to housekeepers to food service employees, she knows most members of the hourly service staff by name. "I depend on them to help me help all the rest of us," Schmitz says.
Learning by Degrees
Schmitz completed the requirements for her first baccalaureate degree from St. Catherine's last August with a major in sociology; she will complete two more majors, in women's studies and critical studies in race and ethnicity, in December 2008. She will graduate Phi Beta Kappa.
"Family members, friends and even total strangers ask what I will do with the degree," she says, seeming not the least affronted by the question. "The first thing I say is that everybody will need me with that background."
Not that Schmitz is looking to leave St. Kate's. As a girl attending Catholic schools in Hastings, Minnesota, she was attracted to the idea of all-women's higher education, but college seemed an unattainable dream. "I could not read," she says. "I believed that I wasn't smart enough. I went through decades thinking of myself that I wasn't smart."
Schmitz has a learning disability that hampered her self-confidence for years. Calling her condition a "serious comprehension disability and an audio disability," Schmitz says she lacks the mental filters that allow people to prioritize and categorize information. Her mind takes in everything, and gives it equal weight, including noises down the hall when she's in the midst of conversation.
Because her daughter had a similar condition diagnosed in adolescence, Schmitz has used doctors' recommendations to figure out how her brain works. She has an uncanny ability to spell words she's never seen but lacks the recall at times to discern their meaning. She ran a dance studio for years not by studying dance formally but by watching and mimicking dancers' steps.
"I pay very close attention to people," Schmitz says. That, in turn, has helped her build relationships in the college community she loves.
Asked about her favorite types of phone calls, Schmitz describes interactions with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, with eager alumnae and, especially, with worried parents. "People never expect that someone will really help them," Schmitz explains, giving due credit to her student workers. "But my staff and I do."