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Shaping Minds: Holly Dolliver

Associate Professor of Geology and Soil Science

Spend any amount of time with Holly Dolliver and her love and appreciation for her job will become abundantly evident. An associate professor of geology and soil science at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Holly’s passion for not just her chosen field, but her role as an educator, is unmistakable.

“Sometimes I do have to pinch myself. I feel very lucky that I get to have this job,” she says with a smile.

Working in a discipline that lends itself to outside of the classroom learning has led Holly to experience a student-teacher relationship unlike any other.

“My favorite classes to teach are the classes where I get to work with students in the field. I teach a soil physics class that’s in a flip format so there’s no traditional lecture. They do all that before coming to class and our class time is so dynamic,” she explains. “I feel like my students are collaborators with me and that is such a unique relationship for a professor to have. We don’t commonly experience that but when I get to those upper division classes, I am able to relish it.”

“I teach soil physics. It’s a scary class. My mission when I took over that class was that it was going to be the most fun class, but also very valuable and skills-based. We’re going to take something that is hard and we’re not going to water it down, we’re actually going to amplify it,” she says. “I did that by that flip format.”

“What was so beautiful about it was the first year I did that, I had that moment in the field one day. My class is all scattered around doing instrumentation and measurements and all that stuff and I’m thinking, ‘I’m collaborating with 25 students in my class! And someone’s paying me to do this! This is the most fun I’ve ever had!’” she recalls. “I’m asking them for their advice, they’re asking me for mine. That’s just beautiful at all levels. I love those classes where I feel that team-like or collaborative approach.”

The field work that comes hand-in-hand with her specialty also allows Holly to establish more unique relationships with her students.

“We are constantly taking our students on field trips and field work. When you spend two or three weeks with other faculty and students, that relationship is very strong and very different. It’s very different than what a vast majority of my colleagues across campus get to have,” she says. “We have a closeness. It’s almost a family culture because we travel together so much.”

“There’s nothing like a 12-hour van ride that lets you get to know a lot about students. You learn a lot about their culture and who they are,” she explains. “That relationship that I get when I sit in a van with them for a 10 or 12-hour drive is pretty different than anything I can accomplish in the classroom. I can challenge them more. I know the points where they’re sensitive or the hang-up points and the challenges they face and I can communicate better with them.”

It’s clear that Holly cherishes the relationships and collaborations she creates with her students. It’s a natural outcome for someone who was meant to be a teacher.

“I just have a passion for teaching. I really do. I've always asked those ‘why’ questions. Why is something the way that it is?” she explains. “I enjoy being able to explain them and explain it in a way that people can connect with it and can understand it, that influences them in some way.”

A last-minute turn of events led Holly to teaching in the first place and she’s never looked back.

“I was in the last six months or so of my master's degree and my adviser had a really serious car accident. His wife called me and said ‘he’s not going to able to teach for the rest of the semester, so you’re going to have to teach for him.’ I was like, no way,” she recalls. “But he was eventually okay and I was lucky enough to have very encouraging students and it was a happy ending.”

“It became very clear that my heart was in teaching and outreach. When I signed on to do my Ph.D., it was so that I could get a job teaching. That was my entire focus,” she explains. “I even did Ph.D. education coursework in a science field, which almost never happens. That is how much that experience was influential to me.”

While her early teaching role as a graduate student ignited Holly’s passion for teaching, it was an experience several years earlier that had one of the most profound impacts on her life - and her work.

“I was a first-generation college student. My parents were so nervous, they had no idea what to do. It was a lot of money. They were committed to wanting to help me, but they didn’t know how to help me. They simply had no experience to fall back on,” she says.

“I can remember my dad especially because he was a farm dad. Strong, patriarchal father figure who could probably lift a header on a combine at a moment’s notice if need to. I can remember him on that first day of dropping me off. I can remember him, that wave of emotion,” she recalls. “He just didn’t know. It was like, ‘I’m sending my first-born child off to school, now what?’ We didn’t know what to do or what to expect.”

“I think what that whole experience instilled in me is just a tremendous heart for wanting to help. Not just those first-generation students, but their families. Because I can remember how hard it was for my dad to cry. It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry,” she says. “I see those parents come through my office and if I can do nothing but alleviate those anxieties, to help them feel like their child is going to be looked after and this is a great place and they’re going to be well taken care of, then I will.”

Holly knows others can benefit from her experiences and she’s happy to pass that knowledge along.

“I’ve met parents where I can sense and know they don’t have that experience. If I can take that extra one minute to help them feel comfortable, I think that’s one of those things I can do because I have that experience from the past of just not feeling comfortable,” she says. “If I can be a good listener and answer their questions and anticipate where their concerns and anxieties are, I will.”

“I want them to leave my office feeling excited and happy and confident that this is going to be a great place - both the students and the parents. That’s something I really strive hard to do," she says.

Holly has come a long way from her roots as a first-generation college student.

“As a first-generation college student, I was just figuring things out. I grew up on a small farm. I had barely gotten outside the state of Minnesota on just a handful of trips. I had never been any place internationally other than Canada,” she says.

“As an undergrad, I was very focused on being financially efficient. It wasn’t really until I got here [UW-River Falls] that I had that moment where I could just breathe and finally figure out who I was as a person. When you’re teaching other people, you’ve got to be real with yourself,” she says. “I think I formed my worldview a lot, just really solidified it a lot when I got here.”

“I think some of the qualities of who I am as a person really came out with that deep passion and this deep love for my subject matter. When you teach, that passion is a huge strength. It’s a way that you can connect with your students. I’m sure it was there in my past. In that teaching role, it has come out,” she says.

“I think my heart for this young adult generation has also come out,” she says. “We’re constantly making meals for students and having students over all the time. With the connections that we make in the classroom and through research, we really do get to know our students a lot.”

“So, I’ve changed a lot. I’m much more of an independent thinker. I’m able to cope with change and complexity a lot more now than in the past. Professionally, my knowledge has grown so much more,” she continues. “There’s nothing like having to teach the material to make you truly learn it. I’ve seen connections across disciplines. I think this place really allowed so many things to come to fruition. For that reason, I’m incredibly grateful for all the growth I’ve had.”

Holly’s path has been one of impactful experiences, all of which contribute to the shaping of minds she does as a teacher. But the impact that one particular group has had on her, may be what’s surprised her the most.

“What I never anticipated was how much the students would become part of my journey," Holly says. "They’re a part of this path that I’m taking and they have such an impact on me. It’s really very special that I get to experience this.”

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