Photo caption: Nora Schmidt always loved to write but was never sure she was especially good at it. That changed when she came to UW-Eau Claire and immersed herself in its English department. Thanks to English professors who taught and encouraged her, Schmidt will graduate this month with a degree in English-creative writing and a minor in math. (Photo by Shane Opatz)
When Nora Schmidt came to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire 3½ years ago as a freshman, choosing her minor was easy. After all, she’d already earned several mathematics credits thanks to the AP calculous courses she completed in high school.
Finding her major proved to be far more difficult, though in hindsight the answer was right in front of her all along, says Schmidt, who will graduate in December with a major in English-creative writing and a minor in math.
“My creative writing major was a hard sell,” says Schmidt, who grew up in Hudson. “I’ve loved writing my whole life, but never had the courage to pursue it as more than a hobby. Encouragement from my family and my professors helped me develop the confidence and skill to go for it.”
Once she made her decision, she never looked back.
The English department — her professors and fellow students — helped Schmidt find her place on campus and a future that excites her.
“In English, I love how close the professors are in the department and how welcoming they are to their students,” Schmidt says.
She says she’s been fortunate to have had some of the same professors teach her in more than one course, creating a sense of familiarity that “helps me feel really at home in the department.”
Building skills, confidence through research
While she found her home in the English department, her math studies also helped to shape her college experiences and how she sees her future.
During her freshman year, Schmidt was in two math classes taught by Dr. Chris Ahrendt, professor of mathematics. The second semester, he invited her to join his research team. So, she spent her sophomore year researching the behavior of solutions of the Riccati equation in the time-scale calculus, focusing on the ways in which we might translate methods and givens of continuous math to the realm of discrete math.
“The research with Dr. Ahrendt was really important for my college career, in terms of the experience but also the impact it had on my self-esteem and academic confidence,” Schmidt says. “It probably sounds silly, but I didn’t really know that I was particularly ‘smart’ until my freshman year, when various professors encouraged me to major in math, English and even chemistry. My high school teachers had been encouraging and supportive, but being selected to do research with professors as a freshman eliminated my doubts about my intelligence.”
Schmidt enjoys the challenges and experiences she found through her major and minor, but she also appreciates that the University Honors Program offered her opportunities to take classes on topics that fall far outside of her typical areas of study.
“I could talk for days about the Honors Program,” Schmidt says. “I love it to bits, mostly because of the way it enabled me to take time for ‘fun’ elective learning. While I’ve always loved learning in general, I never took the time in high school to take the ‘fun’ classes. Instead, I piled on AP courses in preparation for college.
“After over 16 years of working hard to make the most of school, it was so fun to take classes like ‘Fermentation,’ ‘The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln,’ ‘The Multicultural Art & Science of Forgiveness’ and ‘Botanical Beings (Ojibwe botanical teachings).’”
Students in the Honors Program come from all majors, which helps students connect with other high-achieving and curious Blugolds from many majors. The interdisciplinary focus of the program makes the Honors classes especially interesting, Schmidt says.
“Part of what makes an Honors course an Honors course is that it must be interdisciplinary, so each class I’ve taken in Honors has taught me at least a basic understanding and working definition of two-plus disciplines/perspectives,” Schmidt says. “I learned to cook sourdough scones, to dissect Lincoln’s speeches, to forgive the trespasses of myself and the people I love and to finally keep a plant alive, among many, many other things.”
A mentor and a leader
Through the University Honors Program, Schmidt also has served as a tutor, helping to provide academic support to other Blugolds who are part of the program. This semester she’s a tutor for the “The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln” course.
This year, Dr. Heather Fielding, director of the Honors Program, encouraged Schmidt to be a peer mentor through a new program that supports freshmen who come to UW-Eau Claire without declaring a major.
“Nora has a classic 'Power of And' story, and this is why it was perfect for her to work with undecided students,” Fielding says. “She declared a major late because she was so full of interests and eventually figured out a way to pursue almost all of them here.”
The Level Up initiative is an enrollment management program that helps first-year students transition to college and make meaningful connections.
“It is a role that Nora was amazing at,” Billy Felz, interim vice chancellor for enrollment management, says of Schmidt’s work as a peer mentor. “She was approachable, insightful and engaging with our new students, and most importantly she was relatable.
“I was very impressed with her 'take charge' leadership, which was seen at the end of our first class, when she told our students she would escort them to the best place on campus to get coffee and then show them how to take the bus for free to upper campus. Those students were so lucky to have her as a resource in their first semester of freshman year.”
Schmidt says it was rewarding to work with the younger students, helping to guide and support them in the first weeks of their college career.
“Over the first seven weeks of the semester, I got to know seven incoming freshmen and help them ease into the UWEC experience,” Schmidt says. “I also had a couple of my friends come to talk to the class about student orgs and involvement on campus.
“Though it was a small group, I enjoyed working with the students in my Level Up section and helping them adjust to campus and college life. It made me really happy to share some of the knowledge I’ve accumulated throughout my 3½ years here and keep my students from making the same mistakes.”
A Blugold family
While Schmidt blazed her own trail as a Blugold, she had plenty of people to turn to if she needed advice about how to make the most of her time at UW-Eau Claire. After all, she’s been surrounded by Blugolds for years.
Both her siblings, Tom and Abby Schmidt, are UW-Eau Claire graduates. They loved their time at UW-Eau Claire, which helped inspire Schmidt to follow in their footsteps.
“Having visited both my siblings throughout high school, I didn’t even apply to any other schools — I knew UWEC was the right place for me,” Schmidt says of deciding to be a Blugold. “When I arrived here as a freshman, it already felt like a little family reunion.”
Several of her cousins currently are Blugolds and her uncle also graduated from UW-Eau Claire, Schmidt says, joking that “we still have a couple of cousins to wrangle in when they reach high school.”
“In the fall of 2019, there were six of us in my family attending UWEC, and most of us even lived on upper campus,” Schmidt says. “All of my maternal grandparents’ grandchildren attend(ed) UWEC. I’ve carpooled with each of my cousins to family events and trips home, and I scarcely had to eat alone for my first two years here — every day at Davies felt like a family gathering.”
Looking to the future
Schmidt is graduating in 3½ years, a semester earlier than expected. So, she is still thinking about her next steps after graduation. Whatever path she decides to follow, she knows UW-Eau Claire has prepared her well to be successful.
“My future plans are quite murky, but only because my liberal arts education and English degree are so broad in the paths that they open,” Schmidt says. “I’m planning to get my teaching degree at some point. About 50% of my family members are teachers and/or work in education, so it’s always been a goal of mine, even if it’s not until later in life. Right now, I’m focusing on internships and testing my hand at copy writing, graphic design, editing and nonfiction creative writing, while continuing my years-long development as a fiction writer and essayist.
“Between the wide variety of topics and emphases in the English department, and the diverse perspectives in Honors classes, I am quite ready to take on communication in its many forms.”