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Academic tracks

By Nicole Sweeney Etter

One Marquette professor was the first in his family to attend college (and then never got around to leaving). Another traded the corporate ladder for the world of peer-reviewed journals. A third felt a duty call. What draws faculty into the complicated world of academia is as diverse as their disciplines.

The accidental professor

Dr. Gary Krenz grew up a farm boy living in rural Minnesota. His elementary school was a one-room country school house with outhouses and no running water.    

When he graduated into the much larger area junior high and then high school, he reeled from culture shock. And the word “college” was not part of his family’s vocabulary. “I had no plans. My experience was growing up on the farm,” says the professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science. “I knew nothing about college or even how to find a school.” When Krenz expressed interest in taking a foreign language, his parents steered him into shop classes instead. But he was good at school — especially math — and he soon found himself at Moorhead State College. He double-majored in math and computer science, plus took education courses for his teaching certification. “I didn’t have much of a social life,” he says wryly.

He paid tuition by sometimes working four part-time jobs at a time, and working 12-hour overnight shifts at the local canning factory when he was home for the summer.

When an adviser suggested he go to grad school, Krenz took the advice and started a doctoral program at Iowa State. When he started interviewing for jobs in industry, a friend finally said, “You really love teaching. Why aren’t you doing that?”

A connection landed Krenz a job as a one-semester temporary instructor at Marquette. Twenty-seven years later, he’s still here and now chairs his department. And he still loves sharing his passion for mathematics.

“It’s like I tell my students: When you go to solve a problem, when you solve it you get sort of goosebumps. ... And when you can not only solve it, but clean it up and make it more elegant ... it’s like looking at a work of art,” he says. “Why do you like a work of art? Or why do you like listening to some music or going to see a play? Because you get pleasure from it. Because there’s a beauty, there’s an elegance, it speaks to your soul.”

Krenz especially enjoys working with freshmen. “They’re so sincere. You look at them and you think ‘Wow, you’re seeing things with new eyes,’” he says. “That’s why I volunteer to do pre-major advising because I know what some of them, the first-generation ones in particular, are going through.”

At the same time, Krenz acknowledges that today’s students have a completely different world view, one shaped by their heavy use of technology and social media.

“I have to work really hard to understand kids today. ... I have to be very careful not to superimpose my values,” he says. “The Jesuit pedagogy is to meet people where they are. The struggle is learning where they are.” But he appreciates that Marquette’s focus on cura personalis allows him to develop a deep and often lasting connection to students. “I think what I’m proudest of is that Marquette has actually worked on me,” he says. “It’s those moments when you can actually make a difference.”

The activist

After graduating from Marquette with her bachelor’s degree, Dr. Jame Schaefer taught junior high science and civics before devoting herself to full-time motherhood.

Soon, the mother of four was fired up about ecological issues, and activism became a second career.

“I have always had a strong sensitivity for the environment as special to see, walk within, touch, hear and breathe,” explains the associate professor of theology. “Our family loved being outdoors — hiking, cross-country skiing and snorkeling.”

She became embroiled in addressing environmental issues in Sheboygan: The then-new Interstate 43 and its swath through prime agricultural land in Wisconsin. A proposed nuclear power plant for which a nuclear waste disposal plan did not exist. High levels of PCBs in the Sheboygan River and harbor that contaminated fish and other wildlife and threatened human health and well-being.

Government officials wanted Schaefer’s help. Among her roles was chairing Wisconsin’s Radioactive Waste Review Board when the Department of Energy was investigating granite for a repository. When developing a plan for the International Joint Commission on involving the public in resolving Great Lakes problems, Schaefer had an epiphany.

“To bring about changes in the way people think and act, you need to appeal to the depths of their belief systems,” she says. “Thus I knew I needed to become more familiar with the various religions practiced in the region, including Roman Catholicism.”

That led to a theology course at Marquette, then another and another. She was in her late 40s when she officially started the doctoral program in religious studies.

In every course, Schaefer read texts through an ecological lens and “discovered some impressive sources in the Catholic theological tradition that could be helpful in responding to ecological problems.”

Theology Chair Patrick Carey eventually asked Schaefer to develop and teach a course on environmental ethics  — the first to be offered at Marquette.

“After teaching the course, I realized how exciting it was to be working with bright students, and I thought, ‘I can accomplish more by engaging them in environmental issues from a theological perspective,” she says. “Helping them realize that theology and the natural sciences can be complementary — that they do not conflict — became increasingly important to me.”

Schaefer led the drive to establish a minor in environmental ethics at Marquette and would like to see it turned into a major.

The career-changer

Blame the Hawaiian Punch. Since high school, Dr. Felicia Miller knew she wanted to major in business.

“I really was interested in how companies work,” she says. But it took a marketing course at the University of Pennsylvania —which featured a case study on that fruity red drink — to discover that marketing was her calling. “I love the consumer side of it because you really are trying to convince someone that this is the thing for them to buy, and in order to successfully do that, you have to understand 1,000 different factors that influence why they buy things,” says Miller, an assistant professor of marketing. “Price is an important part, as are product features and attributes, but then there’s a whole bunch of intangible — and in some regards, irrational — reasons why people buy things. And to me that was really interesting. It was like solving a puzzle.”

Miller scaled the corporate ladder at Proctor & Gamble, marketing the Vicks brand, then Pepto-Bismol, then ThermaCare.

She also spent a year at P&G as an advertising consultant, helping different brands conduct research and hone advertising techniques. “That’s where the first notion of getting a Ph.D. occurred to me,” she says. “I found that I really liked the research side, figuring out best practices, writing white papers. And then a friend told me about an organization called the Ph.D. Project.”

The Ph.D. Project’s goal is to help people transition from successful corporate careers to business doctoral programs and ultimately faculty positions to get a more diverse faculty. A weekend conference on what it was like to be a professor sealed the deal.

“The attraction for me to academia was all about the intellectual freedom,” Miller says. “Within your role as a faculty member, you can do whatever you want to do. You can do research in whatever area interests you. Within the context of certain topics, you can teach however you want. ... And then the lifestyle was appealing as well. You have your teaching requirements, you have your research requirements, but you can fulfill those within a flexible work environment. This is not a 9-to-5 world.”

Her decade of corporate experience is a boon in the classroom, though she finds it easier to teach graduate students. “To me, that was more akin to my corporate experience, adult-level education and people who frankly have some career experience to draw upon because so much of the classroom experience is discussion-based,” she says. To bridge the gap with undergraduates who don’t have the same work and life experience, Miller tries to build in applied-learning projects.

“But I still struggle with whether I have realistic expectations for these students or if I’m being too tough,” she says. “My husband accuses me of being a very tough grader. And I say, ‘I don’t know, I think if I push them they can get there.’”


Comment by Victor Blas at Feb 07 2012 11:16 am
This was a great read and I learned more about Dr. Krenz! He is an amazing professor, friend and mentor!
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