Senior Laura Kvasnicka had a conundrum on her hands two years ago as a sophomore headed toward J-Term: She was spending the month of January in Tanzania and needed some guidance. She was interested in how she might research the limits to education and health care access at the orphanage she would be staying at. Classic problem, right? Luckily when she went to justice and peace studies assistant professor Mike Klein, he knew just the person.
“I go to Uganda every year, so we met when she first wanted to ask some questions about it,” said JPST assistant professor and department chair Amy Finnegan. “That turned into a mini-research project, which turned into a completely separate and fascinating research project here at St. Thomas, and that unfolded into a second semester and her presenting something, and that unfolded into her going to law school at St. Thomas. Wow.”
Wow is right.
Tracing their growing relationship shows an organic process that took both by surprise.
“I don’t think I was expecting to have this relationship,” Kvasnicka said. “She has great connections and great insights into everything. I love working with her and talking with her, so I wanted to keep that up. She’s offered some amazing opportunities for me, so maintaining that relationship has been amazing to continue getting those and other insights from her.”
After her initial trip to Tanzania, Kvasnicka worked with Finnegan through a St. Thomas-funded grant, which has led to her ongoing research about the dynamics of gender in the field of peace studies as the recipient of two Collaborative Inquiry Grants from the Grants and Research Office.
“I noticed all my peace studies classes have more female students … so I’m looking at what that does to the discipline,” Kvasnicka said. “Empathy has a lot to do with it. Males and females that go into peace studies tend to have a lot of empathy … and having a female-dominated field creates a space where females can speak up and feel safe, but people also realize it’s good to have different perspectives come in, which we may be missing without more male students.”
As Kvasnicka continues toward graduation and law school, their shared time has been a learning experience for Finnegan about the value of connecting with undergraduate students on a deeper level than just in class.
“There are certain students you really connect with, so working together and proposing ways you can continue to connect is natural and life-giving,” Finnegan said. “You have energy to do that. There is an art and a science. Whenever I hear the word ‘art,’ I think of a craft that you can get better at, which I think is true of mentoring.”
For Kvasnicka’s part, she said that while the specifics of connecting with Finnegan surprised her, the opportunity to have deeper relationships with faculty is part of what drew her to St. Thomas.
“I definitely was only looking at smaller private colleges because I knew I wanted to form those kinds of relationships,” she said. “In justice and peace studies with only three professors, smaller class sizes … I’ve gotten to know the faculty really well. Being able to form those kinds of relationships with my professors has been a great experience I was hoping to have in college, and it has turned out really well.”
The same could be said by Finnegan, who said she admires Kvasnicka’s ability to approach her and start a successful partnership.
“Laura takes initiative. She has an idea and knows if she can’t do it herself, she can find someone else to help guide her. I’ve just followed her lead and it’s worked well. She’s humble, an initiator, super organized; it’s inspiring to be working with her,” Finnegan said. “These students have values of social justice and common good, things I want to see out in the world.”
Editor’s note: One of the most common benefits students cite about their St. Thomas education is the ability to connect personally with faculty members, which supports students’ academic work and their growth as people; the value of knowing they are “not just a number” is immeasurable for students. With the “Tommie Mentors and Mentees” series, the Newsroom has sought to illustrate what that value means for specific student-faculty pairs.