UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls

Kinnickinnic River

Who  Shaped Your Journey?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016 | by Dean Van Galen

Let's try an experiment. Take out a piece of paper (or your laptop or cell phone). Now, make a list of the ten people who have had the greatest impact on positively shaping your life's journey. Please do this before you read more…

Next, take a look at your list. You have probably included some family members, such as a spouse, children, parents, grandparents, or siblings. There are likely some close friends on the list. And, your list probably includes one or more educators -- maybe your 4th grade teacher who ignited your  interest in reading, mathematics, or history. Perhaps a high school biology or drama teacher who sparked your intellectual passion, or a teacher or coach who was a role model and source of support during a difficult time during adolescence. For many college students and graduates, the top ten list includes college professors. My list includes two professors from over 30 years ago. The point is that educators -- at all levels -- do more than teach knowledge or skills, they are role models, mentors, sources of inspiration, and people who help us see what is possible and help us achieve our dreams.

I was recently reminded of this when I joined 13 UW-River Falls students who are part of the McNair Scholars Program as they presented their undergraduate research at a symposium at the University of California, Berkeley. The McNair Scholars Program supports first-generation college students from low-income families or members of a group underrepresented in graduate education. The goal of the McNair Program is not only to encourage students to finish a college degree, but for them to go on and complete a Ph.D. -- a goal that was unimaginable for these students only a couple of years ago. Yet, there were these 13 students from UW-River Falls at the University of California, Berkeley with other McNair students from across the nation, presenting their undergraduate research.

Our students did an amazing job. They were well prepared, articulate, professional, and clearly excited about their research and their future. Every one of these students was mentored in their research projects by a professor. One student after another told me how those professors generously took time to work with them on their research, were wonderful advisers, and went the extra mile to help them.

One of the 13 UW-River Falls students, Shanna  Burris, was mentored by our Agricultural Engineering Technology Professor Dean Olson. Shanna described Dr. Olson as a wonderful mentor, providing her with the advice and resources she needed to realize her vision. For her research project, Shanna designed and built a mechanical horse saddle lift that enables paraplegic riders to lift a Western saddle from the height of a wheelchair onto a horse (before mounting the horse using a ramp). A large population of  "para-riders" is using horse riding as a specialized therapy, and the assistive  device that Shanna has developed holds great potential to enable hundreds of paraplegic riders to achieve a new level of independence. Shanna is now working with the WiSys Technology Foundation and has filed a patent application on her  idea. Truly amazing.

Student Prepares Saddle

As we begin a new academic year and welcome our students back to campus, I pause to reflect on the importance of educators' role in inspiring and shaping their journeys. Dr. Dean Olson is just one of many dedicated professors at UWRF who provide mentorship and serve as lifelong role models for our students. If we ask Shanna to write her list of  "journey-shapers" even 20 or 30 years from now, I am confident that Dr. Olson will still be on that list. The vast majority of educators -- including college professors -- choose to become educators primarily because they want to make a difference in the  lives of students. Often, these educators are inspired by a college professor who made a difference in their own lives. I am convinced that educators transform the lives of their students. Take another look at your "top ten" list, and I am sure you will agree.