Monday, August 1, 2016

What I got out of this summer...

We were asked by the students to write about what the LAKES REU means to us, as mentors.  The short answer is that it's the only way I'll get the research I want to do, done.  That's not the whole story.  In fact, it's become a minor part of the story, ironically.  The LAKES REU has become an avenue to both train just amazing undergraduate students in research and to connect my research to the community in consequential ways.  Both of these things I could go on and on about, but it comes across like a resume perhaps.  Instead, I want to dedicate this blog post to what I've received from my research interns this year, Alexis Econie and Clare Salerno.  From this post I hope you can all appreciate where this year's sociological work has come from.

Alexis came here from Illinois State University.  Wow, was she excited when she got here.  And that excitement has never died off.  I didn't realize this go-getter's complexity at first; all I knew is she was ready to work, and work hard.  As I spent some time with her, Alexis talked about her expertise in sky diving as casually as one would talk about their high school chess club, illustrated her Amazonian ability to take down anyone in arm wrestling, and was the first to sign up for rock climbing.  These things just kind of emerged alongside her serious, instrumental, get-down-to-business approach to research.

Alexis is a bit intimidating when you start working with her.  I didn't know if I'd be able to keep up with her at first.  But I soon discovered that her gumption was coming from a place of true curiosity, and she just simply embraces everything.  It was like every new thing was the coolest thing she'd ever learned, a characteristic I will tell you from 16 years of teaching is quite rare.  This makes teaching really fun!  And while Alexis is always looking for the next thing, she does so only after she completes even the most mundane task in an exemplary fashion (e.g. transcribing interviews the same day every interview is conducted).  She completed her final research poster today (you will see it this Wednesday at the Raw Deal!) and it had very little left to change on it.  She sat there for a moment while everyone was leaving the room and said, "So what do I do now?"  Alexis couldn't believe she could just go take a hike or read a book or do some marathon Netflix watching.  I could see her mind racing: "Maybe I should go rock climbing?"; "It's OK to have a beer at 2pm in Wisconsin, right?"; "Maybe somebody will want to play soccer?"

And while Alexis is a force of nature, you're actually never really overwhelmed by that.  You'll see why if you spend just a little while talking with her.  She genuinely is interested in people in a kind and generous way.  I think that's what makes her personality such a killer combination.  She is excited about almost everything, and she loves just about everyone.  If I could clone her I would.

Clare.  Clare is extraordinary, but in a softer way than Alexis.  She hails from New England.  What I perhaps love most about Clare is her ability to absorb everything...and then figure things out better than you can.  And she does it in such an easy way.  It's not condescending or intimidating; it's just cool and calm.  I wonder if it reflects a bit of her rural Vermont background?  Or maybe the relaxed artist vibe that pervades her family?

Clare runs track as a distance runner at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.  She doesn't do it to dominate others, as you sometimes see in sports.  My impression is the simple love of pushing herself physically, especially out in nature, is what motivates her running.  Clare reminds me of someone I ran track with in college, who is now a prominent sociologist down in Texas.  Both of them are committed to being responsible human beings, but not in the sense of just meekly following rules.  Instead, the focus for them is on doing the right thing, knowing how complex that is for any given situation.  In other words, I think it's an inner sense of exploring what is right and good in this world that drives Clare.  It certainly inspires those around her to do the same, not because she demands it but because that's the quiet example she sets.  Her college has boasted graduates ranging from Madeleine Albright to Hillary Clinton to Soong Mei-ling to Diane Sawyer.  In my humble opinion, they all pale in comparison to the character of Clare Salerno.  Spend a summer doing research with her, if you're so lucky to have the chance, and you'll see why. 

So what does the LAKES REU mean to me?  I guess what it means most, upon reflection, is that I get to spend quality time with exceptional people who I can learn from in unexpected ways.  I had a somewhat serious knee surgery about a week into the REU this summer, and it took a bigger toll on me than I expected.  I was very insecure about my ability to mentor well.  I didn't want to let the overall project down, and I (especially) didn't want to let Clare and Alexis down.  But then they just handled it.  The combination of their excitement for every new thing and relaxed effort at doing the right thing made up for my debilitated state, and it set a nice example for me on how to approach each day.  I'm a better person for having spent the summer with Alexis and Clare.  How often can you say that?  The LAKES REU brought me that gift, and that really is something. 

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