St. Thomas Newsroom

Senior Stride

Graduation provides these eight seniors with time to reflect on past accomplishments and look forward to what the future may hold.

Nick Ronnei, Chanhassen

Even after interviewing for the position Nick Ronnei didn’t totally understand what he would be doing. It didn’t sink in what a big deal this was until after Ramsey County offered him the chance to lead its Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment.

“The minute I realized the full scope of what I was doing, it really hit me,” Ronnei said.

That full scope included conducting an assessment of how vulnerable certain populations in Ramsey County are to the effects of climate change. It’s the first such study on the scale of a single county in, as far as Ronnei knows, U.S. history. Such studies usually are done on much larger scales with many more people; Ronnei’s summer and fall of research represented a genuine first.

“To get this kind of experience at this point in my career, I feel very blessed,” Ronnei said.

Ronnei said his work likely will set a precedent for similar studies in Hennepin County and at the city level, specifically an initial study in Duluth. Ramsey County has offered Ronnei more work after graduation on studies involving lead levels and organic recycling, which he hopes will help his appeal to graduate schools.

Plans for next year: Attend graduate school at University of California Santa Barbara, Michigan State University or Oregon University.

Maxine Johnson, Minnetonka

What are the first five words you think of when you hear the word “prostitution?”

If you’re anything like the subjects of St. Thomas senior Maxine Johnson’s research, negatively associated words such as “dirty” and “sex worker” might be ones that jump to mind. Johnson set out to find if – through the power of a person’s narrative – people’s attitudes could be changed about women involved with prostitution.

After asking her subjects a series of questions like the “first five words” one, Johnson showed them a two-and-a-half minute video of women sharing their life stories, their experiences, how they got into the sex trafficking market, how they got out of it and what they’re doing now. The video put a face and story to an often abstract issue. She then asked her subjects the same questions of people.

“The results were amazing. Some of the words they said before were scary, just mean and harsh. Afterward they were sympathetic,” Johnson said.

She found her subjects were more understanding: These women had not chosen prostitution, but were forced into it through abuse and circumstances well outside their control.

“It was cool to see the power of a story, what someone’s words could do to people’s mindsets,” Johnson said.

Plans for next year: Attend graduate school and pursue counseling and psychology. “I want to work with kids. I know that’s my calling,” Johnson said.

Brooke Davies, Shoreview

A student in a Catholic high school, Ivy doesn’t feel she fits into a box, but also believes she must choose between “the lesbian or straight world.” As she struggles to deal with emotions from her growing feelings toward a female classmate, she becomes pained and confused.

This scenario sets the backdrop for Brooke Davies’ manuscript, a work in progress that also delves into race, class and environmental issues. Davies wrote throughout the fall of her senior year when she was part of HECUA (Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs), a learning beyond borders program that takes students outside the classroom and coordinates community partnerships around the world. Davies worked with the Pangea World Theater, which gave her firsthand experience with people looking to represent diverse voices.

“Diversity doesn’t just happen,” Davies said. “I’ve learned so much from the people I’ve worked with there. They’re so humble about the incredible social change they’ve enacted in their lifetimes.”

The novel is an extension of the compassion Davies grew up feeling and focused on through her social justice and peace studies classes.

“There are different events that happen that make Ivy accept herself and realize that she can be who she is and … she doesn’t have to choose between the lesbian and straight world,” Davies said. “She can love who she loves.”

Plans for next year: Teach ELS abroad, preferably in Spain.

Hannah Polsky, Burnsville

President of the St. Thomas Philosophy Club.

Philosophy tutor. Prefect in a Catholic women’s house. Double major who has accrued enough credits to take classes for fun during the spring of her senior year. Study abroad experience in Rome.

Hannah Polsky’s impressive resume goes on and on, but employers won’t be breaking it down and bringing her in for interviews any time soon. Her plans for next year are set: Polsky will join a cloistered Carmelite convent in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, and become a nun.

“I believe it’s God’s call for my life,” Polsky said.

With a Jewish father and Catholic mother, religion always has been an interesting focal point of Polsky’s life. By entering a Carmelite convent – which takes the counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience – she will follow a long tradition of Jewish roots in its order.

“I consider myself a Hebrew Catholic, so the combination of those parts of my background is huge,” Polsky said.

Polsky will go through a five-year discernment process where she may leave at any time before fully taking her vows, which commit her to a life cloistered in one place, barring emergencies. She said her time at St. Thomas has helped affirm her decision, which took some growing used to.

“At first it was difficult to accept, but after prayer I’ve become quite excited about it,” Polsky said.

Plans for next year: Enter a cloistered Carmelite convent.

Chad Berg, Rosemount

For finance and economics double major Chad Berg, the similarities between music and his number-driven studies are clear.

“Basically in music there’s a formula, and that’s the same thing with, say, accounting formulas,” he said. “Everything fits together.”

What wasn’t so clear to Berg as a freshman was the formula for being in an a capella group at St. Thomas. There weren’t any groups to join, which meant making a whole different formula: how to start your own.

“We basically just got a group of guys together. It was, ‘I sing, you sing, do you want to sing together?’” Berg said.

Out of this came the Summit Singers, who have been pleasing St. Thomas audiences (in sizes from dozens to hundreds) ever since.

“It’s tiring to be on stage for two hours, but it’s very rewarding to get that recognition on a large scale,” Berg said. “My favorite times though, have been the rehearsals and the smaller performances. As great as the larger performances are, it’s about the journey. It’s the guys in the group that make it so fun.”

Plans for next year: Currently exploring different fields in finance, Berg said, “I’m just going to see where life takes me.”

Nathan Parsons, Brainerd

Many, if not most, Americans couldn’t have even told you it happened. That doesn’t make the Philippine-American War, which lasted from 1899-1902, any less real.

St. Thomas history and psychology double major Nathan Parsons understands that all too well as – thanks to a Young Scholars grant – he researched the conflict last summer. The scope of the very intentional brutality used by American soldiers was shocking, Parsons said (waterboarding can be traced to this war). He wondered how members of a country, so adamant it was there to help an “under-civilized” nation, could resort to such horrific means.

The answer he found lies in the psychology of a Progressive Era America that believed itself to be the world’s model: When its belief was put to the test with actual threat in life- or-death military situations, Americans resorted to reasserting their dominance by force. The façade of benevolence and selfless desire to help disappeared, Parsons said, and was replaced by violence.

“When its fighting superiority was challenged it created a dissonance between what you think of yourself and what you actually are,” he added. “This is quite dangerous for a country like America.”

Parsons questioned why the U.S. foreign policy for decades has placed its soldiers in similar situations, a reality that carries through to modern day. Parsons’ research and the difficult questions it forces landed his paper in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Military History, a prestigious national journal that rarely accepts undergraduate work.

“Especially with America becoming increasingly conscious of our wrongdoings, I don’t think it’s fair to put our soldiers, our people, in this kind of situation,” he said. “It is hard to act nobly in these situations.”

Plans for next year: Enter a Ph.D. research program and continue his education as a historian.

Erik Sathe, Hopkins

As a kid who grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, it’s maybe no surprise Erik Sathe was drawn to St. Thomas’ resident lizard man, assistant professor Jerry Husak.

As a kid who also was “really into LEGOs,” it’s maybe no surprise Sathe also was drawn to the physics of how things go together.

Sathe has spent most of his college career at the intersection of those interests, researching how the physical abilities of lizards make them perform in different ways, from running across different surfaces to how hard they bite.

“I’ve spent hours running lizards on treadmills,” Sathe said. “That’s not some- thing very many people have done.”

Sathe’s interest in research has grown along with his exposure to it, and he hopes to continue such work in graduate school.

“A lot of times you think everything is known about everything,” he said. “Through college I’ve learned that’s not the case.”

Plans for next year: Attend graduate school for biology.

Emily Scharpen, Grand Forks, North Dakota

Emily Scharpen gained perspective as she started working with mostly teenage, system-involved girls at The Link, a Twin Cities nonprofit that provides support for at-risk youth and families.

“Why am I complaining about something so little when I’m talking with kids who have been trafficked, been exposed to drugs at school?” Scharpen said of her initial thoughts. “Those were never issues for me. It made me realize there’s a huge world outside of your own circle.”

Scharpen’s research work helped focus that perspective and solidify her goal of continuing to pursue social work. Her research studied the effectiveness of The Link and its ability to make a difference in these young people’s lives at crucial times.

“We spoke with a lot of key stakeholders … like city workers, county workers, police officers, and everyone saw it as a very good thing for the community,” Scharpen said. “It’s safe for the community and safe for the kid. Overall we found it was a really good thing.

“If you can get to an at-risk kid at 14, the chances are they will get back on track and not do these bad things when they’re an adult,” Scharpen added. “It’s preventative work too.”

Plans for next year: Attend the St. Catherine and St. Thomas Master of Social Work program.