The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

    Finding her niche

    On a typical weekday morning, senior Heather Harris can be found in the residence halls as early as 5:00 a.m. conducting research with her partners. The study is in its second semester under the supervision of psychology professor April Bleske-Rechek.

    “Heather is my go-to person for anything on the study,” Bleske-Rechek said.

    Today, Harris is a busy and successful student actively involved in research. However, just three years ago, Harris was working the overnight shift at a local nursing home after being suspended from UW-Eau Claire for poor grades.

    A rough start
    Harris started out as a pre-med student – a major, she soon discovered, she had no passion for. As a freshman entering with many of her general education requirements already fulfilled, Harris began taking her essential lab classes right away.

    By the end of her second semester, Harris’s grades had really begun to slide.

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    “(I was) not going to labs and not really liking what I was doing,” she said. “But for some reason, it never really crossed my mind that I could switch majors.”

    Because she entered the university with college credits she had completed in high school, Harris somehow slipped through her freshman year without taking an FYE course. She believes that this led her to miss out on valuable information that might have helped her adjust to college life more smoothly.

    “Everyone else was like, ‘Yeah, you should know this, because you did this for your FYE class,'” Harris said. She didn’t even know FYE classes existed until the semester was almost over.

    At the end of the fall 2006 semester, Harris was informed that she would not be returning the following spring; she had been suspended for one semester due to poor academic performance. Although she knew her grades had been suffering, Harris was still surprised by the consequences.

    “Part of me didn’t believe it was actually going to happen. I was in denial about it. I thought, ‘There’s no way they’re going to kick me out because they’re making money off of me.'”

    Harris said the next several months were difficult for many reasons: she was on academic suspension; she was working an overnight shift at a nursing home where people passed away on a regular basis; she shared an apartment with a coworker in a rough neighborhood. Life was a bit of a struggle, and Harris eagerly counted down the days until she could return to UW-Eau Claire for a second chance.

    Choosing a new direction
    When Harris returned to school for the fall 2007 semester, she knew there was a lot of pressure to improve. She spent most of the semester in the library studying after classes, determined to get her GPA back on track. She also worked with someone in the Academic Skills Center to develop strategies for overcoming test anxiety. The efforts paid off; during her first semester back she earned As in all of her classes.

    Harris’ grades were on the rise, but she was still struggling to settle on a major. She knew that she loved talking to people, and she knew she loved making connections between different disciplines, but she didn’t know how that translated into a specific career or major.

    “It’s hard to know, when you don’t know what you want to do, where to start to figure it out.”

    Harris did try going to Career Services for guidance in choosing a major, but she found the choices to be too specific for her varied interests. Her real passion is for interdisciplinary topics, she said. It was difficult to select a major when everything from Hebrew to history sounded fascinating to her.

    “It’s a cool way to be, because you’re more open-minded to the world, but I think when it comes to deciding paths, it’s hard.”

    One of the classes she took that first semester back was International Communication, led by Arlyn Anderson. Anderson, a professor in the Communication and Journalism department, was thrilled with the enthusiasm Harris brought to class. Anderson said he never would have guessed that Harris spent the last semester out of school on academic suspension.

    “When she was in the class . I had no idea,” Anderson said. “She . and a couple of other people that sat around her, they just had this nucleus that they formed. . It’s just like that cluster of students that as a professor you’re just so tickled to have in a class.”

    Anderson occasionally connected the course material to a book called The Ever-Present Origin by Jean Gebser. Harris was so interested by the text that she and Anderson arranged for an independent study the following semester focused completely on the book. Harris spent that spring reading The Ever-Present Origin and writing reflections. It was with his help that she realized she definitely wanted to pursue graduate school after she graduated from Eau Claire.

    Harris finally had a clear path she wanted to pursue, but her performance in previous semesters was still coming back to haunt her. When she shared her graduate school hopes with her advisor at the time, she was told she needed to be more realistic. Despite the lack of encouragement, Harris was determined to reach her goal.

    Harris began to volunteer for AmeriCorps and helped with everything from teaching Spanish to second graders to helping with a summer leadership camp. She credits the independent study with Anderson and her time with AmeriCorps as being very influential to helping her become a successful student. The following spring she began studying psychology, and during the fall 2008 semester she took Methods of Research in Psychology with Bleske-Rechek.

    “I think she had finally found the major for her,” said Bleske-Rechek. “… I think she took a while to find her niche.”

    Dedicated to research
    Harris has since taken four classes with Bleske-Rechek: Evolutionary Psychology, Personality Psychology, Big Issues in Psychology, and Individual Differences and Behavior Genetics. Evolutionary Psychology inspired Harris to pursue studying the menstrual cycle with Bleske-Rechek and classmate senior Kelly

    The research involves visiting residence halls and taking pictures of the participating female students’ faces before they’ve had a chance to shower or apply make-up. Harris and her research partner hypothesize that they will be able to detect fluctuations in physical appearance over the course of the menstrual cycle.

    Bleske-Rechek said this study has not been done before, but that she was still hesitant about pursuing it because it would be very intensive – Harris and Denkinger would need to be in the dormitories, ready to go, three to four mornings a week before any of their participants woke up. However, Bleske-Rechek quickly agreed to begin the study when she saw how committed Harris was.

    “It was really Heather that was so fired up about it,” Bleske-Rechek said.

    This semester, a third student, senior Leah Erickson, has been assisting Harris and Denkinger with the study. Bleske-Rechek is very pleased with the dedication they have shown.

    “They are totally hardcore,” she said. “. Heather never complains. She doesn’t come to class sulking because she’s been up since 4 a.m. because of me.”

    Denkinger said Harris has been an “awesome” research partner – an attitude that Harris reciprocates.

    “She’s told me before that she used to not be that good of a student,” Denkinger said. “I would never know, ’cause I’ve probably taken three or four classes with her now, and she’s just a really good student.”

    Besides being a reliable research partner, Denkinger said she also would consider Harris to be “a very good friend.”

    Harris stated that she feels very lucky to have a professor that is such a great mentor and research partners that are so dedicated.

    They will present their findings at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference this summer. Harris also plans to graduate this December with a major in psychology and a topical minor in physical anthropology and evolutionary psychology. Her next big step will be applying for graduate school; Harris hopes to obtain her doctorate studying evolutionary psychology and anthropology so that she can continue conducting research.

    Looking back, moving forward
    Although Harris will finish her undergraduate career on a very positive note, she still occasionally struggles with feeling like a “bad student.” She said she relates to other students struggling with their courses and hopes they are encouraged to return and to keep trying.

    “Sometimes figuring out what you want in life is a series of trials and errors,” she said. “I wouldn’t change anything from over the past few years because it has given me direction and a deeper understanding of who I am. I am lucky to have such a supportive family, an amazing best friend (who happens to be my boyfriend), and friends who challenge me.”

    For faculty members like Anderson, Harris’s past is not what is important; rather, her current passion for what she is studying is the most inspiring thing about her:

    “Every so often, you get those students where the light’s ready to go on and they gravitate to it. And it’s just a real satisfying thing,” he said. Harris’s passion for learning, according to Anderson, represents her true personality much more accurately than her academic history. Being able to teach interested students like Harris is a treat for professors, he said.

    “That’s the beauty of education, and that’s one of the beauties of this job.”

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