One of the reasons that junior Anna Schellpfeffer chose the University of St. Thomas was because she wanted the chance to personally connect with her professors and not be a “number” in the classroom. She now does research and works alongside engineering professor Sarah Baxter, who is helping her explore all her opportunities as an undergraduate here.
“It’s absolutely great, and part of the reason I picked St. Thomas. I was looking at the University of Minnesota, University of [Wisconsin] Madison, but I wanted a smaller school where I could get more attention, find more opportunities on my own and through teachers,” Schellpfeffer said. “It’s been really great. I wouldn’t have had these [research] opportunities at a small school, so I absolutely love that I’ve been able to do this.”
“This is all helping Anna say, ‘Oh, I have choices. I should look into all these choices and see what’s there for me,’” Baxter said.
Baxter first tapped Schellpfeffer to be a peer mentor in the department’s statics lab.
“We had a brand new lab this year dealing with springs and trusses, and that was so much fun to be part of,” Schellpfeffer said. “[Students] are doing this really cool stuff, and seeing them do this and succeed is so cool.”
The pair also worked on research together last summer thanks to a St. Thomas-funded grant.
“She is the most independent of any of the researchers I’ve worked with so far,” Baxter said. “And I have dragged her into other things. I was thinking about the word ‘mentor’ and it’s so fraught with ideas. … Mentors really can’t be assigned; you have to pick them for yourself. One makes the gesture and then you accept or reject. I’m not giving her life guidance; she doesn’t want to necessarily do what I do, but I’ll say, ‘Do you want to try this?’ And she has said yes.”
That includes continuing their research together in the spring semester with a Collaborative Inquiry Grant. Working with Baxter has been a huge part of her academic experience, Schellpfeffer said. Baxter said she is looking to develop more undergraduate-friendly opportunities in her field of computational mechanics, so Schellpfeffer has been a huge help in helping develop new projects.
“She’s an excellent student so I don’t have to do a ton of mentoring like, ‘Here’s how you budget your time so you don’t fail that class,’” Baxter said. “I think she would be a great candidate for grad school, but that’s not entirely the direction she’s sure she’ll go. … She’s talented enough she may just get one of those jobs that’s so fun in the industry. We need to let her see as many experiences as we can.”
Editor’s note: One of the most common benefits students cite about their St. Thomas education is the ability to connect personally with faculty members, which supports students’ academic work and their growth as people; the value of knowing they are “not just a number” is immeasurable for students. With the “Tommie Mentors and Mentees” series, the Newsroom has sought to illustrate what that value means for specific student-faculty pairs.