Ready for Takeoff
COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS PREPARE ST. CATHERINE SENIORS TO SUCCEED IN A CHALLENGING WORLD.
By Molly Kelash | PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUDY OLAUSEN
IN 2010, COLLEGE SENIORS are graduating into a universe of challenges: record-high unemployment, crowded graduate programs and an unstable economy. Last year, less than 20 percent of graduating seniors nationwide stepped off campuses with a job.
But thanks to the University's long tradition of faculty-student mentoring — and guided but collaborative senior projects — many St. Catherine graduates will have an edge over their peers. By working closely with a faculty member on a capstone project during their senior year, many Katies build essential skills that translate into real-world experience.
They may learn, for example, how to shift course when a plan fails to take shape or a preconceived notion proves false. They may face the soaring highs and crushing lows of the creative process, the self-confidence that drives them to see a project through tempered by the anxiety of not measuring up — even to their own expectations.
It's the working together, the close collaboration with a mentor on a defining project, that helps make the experience both useful and unique — allowing graduating seniors to gain a better understanding of who they are and how they want to contribute to the world.
The following pages feature three very different 2010 graduates whose collaboration with faculty defined and enriched their final days at St. Catherine.
Illuminating Missions Abroad
As Sarah Paquin '10 learned on her first overseas church mission to Thailand, sometimes the greatest lessons in life don't provide answers. They simply raise more questions.
"I went there with this idea that I would be contributing so much, making a huge impact by bringing the people something they didn't have or couldn't do," she says. "But they taught me more than I taught them."
Before she left on the mission in summer 2009, Paquin spoke with her advisor, Professor of English and department chair Joanne Cavallaro, about using the experience as the basis for her senior honors project, a requirement of all Antonian Scholars. "I thought it had potential, and I told her to think about how she would approach it while she was there," says Cavallaro.
While in Thailand, Paquin recorded her thoughts, observations and feelings and took dozens of photos of people and places. She grew to love all of her subjects — which came as something of a surprise.
"Before I left, I thought I was going to write about mission work and its positive effects, but instead I came home with difficult questions about social justice, faith, religion and what it means to love," she says. "I found more value in the people and my relationships with them rather than the actual work we were doing there."
The outcome was a 55-page book called Illuminating Missions Abroad: A Critical and Personal Perspective, which explores the dichotomy between Paquin's expectations of what the mission would accomplish and what she actually experienced. The book, which she submitted for her Antonian Scholars Honors project, contains her questions, thoughts, observations and photographs as well as extensive research and comparisons of different denominations of Christian missionary work and philosophy.
"Initially the book contained a lot more of her research," says Cavallaro, "but we worked together to refine the questions she was asking herself to make it more about her personal journey."
In the book, Paquin, also a theology minor, describes a difficult encounter with a prostitute. The young woman smiled and nodded at the missionaries' attempts to change her circumstances, but ultimately she returned to the life and the livelihood she knew, seemingly unaffected by their attempts to rescue her — just as previous encounters with missionaries had failed. This left Paquin confused about what impact, if any, missionary work ultimately could have on other people, in other cultures.
She also became increasingly uncomfortable with the evangelism aspect of missionary work. During an outreach trip to the hill tribes, she found herself less engaged with the preaching and more involved with trying to make some young boys with frightened eyes laugh:
This was my way of relieving their fear and letting them know that we weren't scary foreigners. I felt it was more important. I felt it was a ministry. Was I wrong?
Writing the book helped Paquin reflect on her own faith, its role in her life, and who she is and wants to be. "I know that I want to work for a social justice or human rights organization, but not one that is evangelism-based," she says.
Cavallaro sees Paquin as a woman of integrity and quiet intelligence. She even pursued a self-created major in sociolinguistics — called Critical Studies of Language and Culture — which required a difficult approval process.
"Sarah has been in many of my classes and has always followed her own inner compass," Cavallaro says. "I think her experience on the mission, the way she explored it through the book, and the amazing public presentation she gave about it for her Antonian Scholars senior project showed what a mature and poised young woman she has become."
Life Behind the Lens
Search for the name "Rebecca Zenefski" on the St. Catherine University website and you'll find page after page of photography citations. Whenever a major event happened on campus, odds are the hard-working photographer was there to capture it.
So it comes as no surprise that a semester-long photography project Zenefski '10 started last fall ended up relating to life on campus — and took on a life of its own.
An exercise and sport science major, Zenefski has become increasingly interested in photography since she transferred from St. Cloud State University in 2006. "At St. Kate's I've had the opportunity to make my photography hobby a professional career," she says. "I started taking photos for commencement in December 2007, and I haven't put my camera down since."
Indeed, Zenefski was the first student hired for the newly created photo bureau in the Office of Marketing and Communications. When she nominated Zenefski for the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Student Leadership Award, Becky Petersen, St. Kate's online communications manager, praised her for her "willingness to take risks and the tenacity to take a job that came with no job description or predecessor." Zenefski won the student leadership award in April.
As Zenefski's involvement with the photo bureau grew, she became more intrigued with the idea of photography as a way to make a living — especially after a friend hired her to shoot a wedding.
"I approached Professor Todd Deutsch to see if he would take me on as an independent study student and he suggested that I take his 'Color Photography' class," she says. "It emphasized a lot I needed to learn to get my business off the ground, like editing, resizing for Internet vs. print, printing professionally and how to get a portfolio ready."
Deutsch, associate professor and chair of the Department of Art and Art History, urged Zenefski to contemplate what kind of photographer she wanted to become. "After Todd encouraged me to figure out what my passion is, I realized I get very excited taking pictures of people, capturing what a person is like in ways that words can't explain," she says.
The class assignment was a semester-long photo project taken through various stages: creating an online album and high-quality prints, then choosing 10 final images to go into a class book. Zenefski chose a proposed advertising campaign — called I'm a Katie. I'm a Katie, too — as her inspiration. "I've always had a problem with higher education advertising using people who weren't real students," she says. "I wanted to show what a real Katie looks like."
She started creating triptychs (three related shots) of friends. But as her goal grew to encompass 50 people, way beyond the bounds of the assignment, she used word-of-mouth and Facebook to help her find the full range of diversity — men, students of color, international students, students of many ages — that makes up the St. Kate's community.
"Something surprising happened," says Deutsch. "It started as a personal project for Rebecca and quickly took on larger implications, something that would be important to the larger campus and future generations as a record of what St. Catherine was like in 2010."
Zenefski completed her project barely two weeks before graduation (the book can be ordered via her Facebook page). She has photographed several weddings since that first one and is booked all summer. "Being involved with coaching and training athletes at the collegiate level is something I am passionate about," she says. "But being at St. Kate's has led me to believe I also have this innate talent to capture photos that others find valuable."
Eloquently Bridging Cultures
Standing before her fellow graduates at the baccalaureate commencement in May, Antonian Scholar Yanshuo Zhang spoke powerfully about experiences and emotions common to all graduating seniors, but also those unique to her and her St. Catherine classmates:
"We have written the most colorful chapters of our lives here with ... a deep appreciation of what we can achieve as women. The St. Kate's education has equipped us ... to face all kinds of challenges ahead. But most importantly, it has bestowed on us the courage and firm confidence to create our own identities."
Her speech was impressive, which may be expected of an English and French major who competed for the honor of addressing her graduating class. What made her eloquence more notable, however, is that Zhang is not a native English speaker.
Hailing from the Szechuan province of China, Zhang has mastered both Chinese and English, which is evident in her accomplishments thus far: She has published two books of creative writing in China (one in high school) and this fall will attend Stanford University on a full ride to pursue her Ph.D. in Chinese literature. She has won several campus academic writing awards and was selected by the U.S. State Department to promote American colleges and universities in China. She spent a year at Trinity College in Ireland and has been an active student leader in many organizations at St. Kate's, including Phi Beta Kappa.
Bonnie LaDuca, associate dean for academic affairs and chair of the Commencement speaker committee, says it wasn't only Zhang's academic résumé that persuaded decision makers to choose her speech out of seven auditioning honors students. "Yanshuo is clearly a remarkable intellectual, and she has this unbridled energy for learning," LaDuca says.
As LaDuca helped Zhang prepare and practice her speech in advance of commencement, she became even more impressed. "She's a really fascinating person and wanted to share with the audience her energy and passion for bringing cultures together," she explains.
Zhang credits her advisor, Professor of English and Women's Studies Cecilia Konchar Farr, with helping her focus her audition speech on how St. Catherine's inclusive campus helped her learn to bridge gaps among cultures while maintaining her own cultural identity.
Konchar Farr was a mentor throughout Zhang's four years, including changing her major from communications to literature. "My decision to go to Trinity College, my preparation and search for graduate school — all of it has been influenced by her constructive, big-picture advice," Zhang says. "Cecilia was a strong and helpful voice to help me make the right decisions."
Konchar Farr informed Zhang of the commencement speech audition and other opportunities that would honor her academic gifts and commitment. "Yanshuo's grasp and use of language is so sophisticated and metaphorical," she says. "She tells memorable stories about the ways ancient China responded to modernism and has a perspective of and relationship to the contemporary world that is unique, but also representative of her generation."
Zhang plans to become a multi-lingual literature scholar and teacher who can help, as she puts it, "bridge Eastern and Western cultures and strengthen the cross-cultural conversation imperative for today's globalizing world."
Her advisor believes that Zhang is well on her way to that goal. "She will be an outstanding scholar who not only affirms but influences the connection between thousands of years of Chinese culture and modern Chinese literature," Konchar Farr says. "I know we will be colleagues someday, and as a colleague she is going to be amazing."