“I have been astounded by the university’s ability to exceed my expectations in nearly every aspect of the student experience.”

There are many ways to be recognized for academic excellence in high school, and one of the most distinguished ways is to be named a valedictorian.

That level of excellence often goes hand in hand with continuing education at a high level, so it is perhaps no surprise that St. Thomas currently boasts 112 former valedictorians in its undergraduate body. We caught up with some of the members of the prestigious group to find out what brought them to St. Thomas and how the university has helped further their academic careers.

Davita Blyakher, senior

 As such a strong high school student, why did you feel St. Thomas was the right place to continue your academic career?

While in high school, I decided that I wanted to study actuarial science. St. Thomas has a very strong actuarial science program, which was what initially brought my attention to the school. Additionally, I liked that it was in the Twin Cities, since not only is it relatively close to home, but there are also a lot of actuarial job opportunities here. Ultimately, after looking at a few other schools with strong actuarial programs, I decided St. Thomas would be best for setting me up for success after college.

What are you studying here at St. Thomas and do you have any plans on what you might do after you graduate?

I am studying actuarial science, with plans to be an actuary after graduating.

How has St. Thomas challenged you and helped you grow academically?

St. Thomas has forced me to step out of my comfort zone in order to be successful. New experiences that I would likely never have been willing to try without the influence of my peers and professors at St. Thomas have allowed me to not only do well in the classroom, but also in my career.

What have been the biggest things here that have helped you in your academic pursuits?

My professors at St. Thomas have been an incredible help in my academic pursuits. It is clear that they all have a passion for teaching and that they want to help their students as much as possible. The professors do everything they can to make sure we understand the content and are doing well in class. Also, the opportunity to form connections with my professors has made classes and learning much more enjoyable

Natalie Stoner, sophomore

As such a strong high school student, why did you feel St. Thomas was the right place to continue your academic career?

I knew St. Thomas was the right place for me to continue my academic career because of their commitment to their students. At St. Thomas I have the opportunity to attend a strong private school where I’m not just a number. I’m able to foster relationships with my professors and have the opportunity to get involved on campus. Located right next to the Twin Cities, I have the opportunity to connect with working professionals. I also hope to get involved in undergraduate research sometime during my four years here, and St. Thomas has a commitment to getting their students involved in research.

What are you studying here at St. Thomas and do you have any plans on what you might do after you graduate?

I’m currently pursuing my Bachelor of Science in biology. I also hope to minor in statistics. After graduation I plan to go to graduate school to get my master’s in genetic counseling. I interned with a genetic counselor my senior year of high school and fell in love with the field. My biology classes at St. Thomas are helping prepare me for my graduate school plans. I plan to take the genetics class offered here next year. Currently, I intern at the Tubman Center and answer their crisis hotline, which has also helped me realize I want to counsel people as a career.

How has St. Thomas challenged you and helped you grow academically?

St. Thomas has challenged me in ways I never expected. I grew up Catholic, but went to public school. Attending St. Thomas has given me the opportunity to consider philosophical and theological questions, along with taking the science classes for my major. This wasn’t a factor I initially considered when choosing which school to go to for my undergraduate degree. However, I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to take philosophy and theology classes along with my major classes.

I’m also able to take other liberal arts classes, which help diversify me as a student. Getting a liberal arts education makes me feel more well-rounded and prepared for wherever my life takes me in the future. I am also a part of the Aquinas Scholars program. This program has allowed me to meet a wonderful group of friends who are also passionate about school. I love learning from all of them and taking honors classes and seminars together. Honors seminars have especially helped me grow academically. They are taught by two professors in different disciplines, allowing us to consider how the two disciplines interact. This summer I took a seminar on theology and physics. We considered the compatibility of faith and science. It was fascinating to study the compatibility between the two fields.

What have been the biggest things here that have helped you in your academic pursuits?

I love the relationships I have formed with my professors at St. Thomas. Having these relationships make me feel like my professors care about me not only as a student but also as a person. I don’t feel like just a number here. It’s wonderful to have the option of going to a professor’s office hours to get help with the course material. St. Thomas also makes it easy for students to get involved right from the start as a freshman. I joined a few clubs at the beginning of freshman year and as a sophomore I’m able to be on the e-board for Special Olympics Club, something I’ve really enjoyed. There are so many opportunities to get involved in clubs and extracurriculars at St. Thomas.

Willie Gross, freshman

As such a strong high school student, why did you feel St. Thomas was the right place to continue your academic career?

In my search for a potential college I looked for an institution that would provide me with an involved community conducive to learning and a sense of connection to the rest of the world that would allow me to advance professionally after graduation or even sooner (through internships). I decided to attend St. Thomas because I believed it would provide both of these needs. I quickly found out that I made the right choice. In my first few months as a Tommie, I have been astounded by the university’s ability to exceed my expectations in nearly every aspect of the student experience.

What are you studying here at St. Thomas and do you have any plans on what you might do after you graduate?

I am planning to major in actuarial science and hope to find a job as an actuary after graduation.

How has St. Thomas challenged you and helped you grow academically? 

A college education is more than studying and tests. It is a culmination of the skills learned in classrooms, social experiences from interactions with peers and supervisors, and knowledge gained from the responsibilities associated with independence for the first time in a person’s life. The University of St. Thomas provides me and other students with bountiful opportunities to grow in these ways. Professors are not scared to challenge students on assessments, and they help us understand class material in a way that could not be done without their direction and guidance. Various club activities challenge students with different backgrounds to communicate and work effectively toward a common goal. Residence life challenges us to make decisions on our own, preparing us for bigger decisions we will make in the near future. It is in these ways that St. Thomas has challenged me to grow academically.

What have been the biggest things here that have helped you in your academic pursuits?

Professors have been the greatest help in my academic pursuits. They are very available and always willing to help students in a variety of ways. I have received indispensable advice from my professors on course material, which classes to take, and how to make the most of my time at St. Thomas. Whether we have a discussion in class, during office hours, or in passing in the hallway, they consistently provide valuable knowledge.

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