First, it was building bike jumps in the backyard, then there was designing numerous LEGO creations, which was followed by studying the inner workings of machines. For senior Stephen “Chip” Spadafora his interests growing up – along with a love of math and problem-solving – led him to major in mechanical engineering.
The Milwaukee, Wisconsin, native was drawn to the University of St. Thomas for a few reasons: He was impressed by the School of Engineering, liked the small class sizes where he could connect with professors, and was able to embrace his love of the environment by adding a minor in sustainability.
Last year, Spadafora participated in the VISION program through a service and cultural immersion trip focused on sustainability and the environment to the U.S. Virgin Islands. While there, he and other St. Thomas students cleared hurricane debris from trails and beaches at a national park. Last summer, Spadafora had a marketing internship in Australia working with Street Library Australia where he helped identify locations that would benefit from the addition of small handmade library houses (think Little Free Libraries).
“I thought a marketing internship sounded interesting, because as an engineering major you want to figure out how to market your product to the most people possible,” he said. “At the same time, I was also getting a firsthand understanding of how sustainability worked on a global scale from a business standpoint.”
Spadafora is also the founder of Tommie Outdoors. Now an official campus club, Tommie Outdoors originally started as a group for students who wanted to do
“outdoorsy” activities together such as hammocking, playing Frisbee and hiking. Club activities have included walking around campus identifying trees and exploring the Pollinator Path. A day trip to Minnehaha Falls and an outdoor skills class are in the plans, he said.
We recently caught up with Spadafora at the Facilities and Design Center to ask him about everything from his love of the outdoors to his taste in music. Here are the highlights from our conversation.
Why do you think you’re so drawn to the outdoors?
Being outside feels natural to me. Being cold, feeling the wind … it makes me feel at home. In my free time, I’ve slowly parted ways with video games and other things and have taken note of what I really enjoy in life: skiing, biking, running outdoors. I love being out in nature and hearing the birds. Every time nature distracts you, it’s something beautiful that’s distracting you.
What’s your favorite outdoor activity?
If it’s in the winter, I’m really big into skiing. During the summer, I love hanging out with a bunch of friends outdoors playing Frisbee or hammocking.
What’s your favorite place on campus?
McNeely Hall during finals week. My buddies and I take a room and just study – it’s one of the best studying spots I’ve found. Even though there are students in other rooms, it feels like I’m in my own little box.
What have you learned about yourself during your time at St. Thomas?
A number of things. The big thing is that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
I’ve learned having a strong, awesome community is as crucial as following your passions. St. Thomas does a good job building this unique community. I’m not just hanging around with only engineers in my major; my community is mixed and includes students from other disciplines.
Another big takeaway is how much my parents have done for me. I can’t believe how much they used to do for me, like helping with laundry. When I go back home for a weekend, I like to take over those things for them.
Another thing would be how instrumental it can be to try something new. As part of the core requirements I took an interesting course on God this past semester. I don’t think I would have taken the class had it not been for the requirements. It ended up reshaping some of my views on life.
If I wouldn’t have tried something new, I never would have joined the VISION community or created Tommie Outdoors. Something motivated me to do all these new things. Some went well, some didn’t, but I learned from all of them. If you try something new, you never know what’s going to happen.
What’s one thing you couldn’t live without?
A healthy body is something I’m really thankful for. I need to get out my energy and explore new areas – outdoors or not. I think if I had something impeding that, it would be tough on me. I’ve had issues come up with my body like a broken ankle and it’s pushed me off onto cool new paths which I think is the beauty of setbacks in life.
If you had a whole day to yourself, what would you do?
I’d want to wake up early and catch the sunrise. I’d probably spend my morning painting. I’ve gotten really into painting since I messed up my ankle. I like to do abstract works. It’s cool to see what the mind is thinking through painting.
Then I’d grab a bite to eat with my parents or friends – maybe have a picnic. Just chill, laugh and be present. I’d love to go on a long bike ride or hike. I’d end the
day with a bonfire and then sleep outside.
What kind of music do you like?
I like all types of music: rap, tropical house, seventies rock. I’ve recently been into Kygo. He plays an upbeat style music – like EDM dance music with a tropical feel.
If you could have dinner with any famous person – dead or alive – who would it be?
Steve Irwin. I feel like he’d have some super cool stories to tell about working with animals. He’d have a lot of knowledge and firsthand experience to share that I think it would be great to learn from.
What do you want people to remember about you after they meet you?
That I say whatever is on my mind. You can tell when people haven’t said what they’ve wanted to say. If you resist saying what you want, it’s like bottling up energy. When I have something on my mind, I like to unleash my thoughts and clear my mind.
Who is the most influential person in your life?
My dad. He’s come so far and become very successful, yet he’s still really compassionate, spends time with his kids and gives back. He works so hard. He has shown me that this is who I can grow up to be. I can also see my own path that I want to create while keeping his traits with me.