Giving Back: Alumni Make the Classroom

Sara Jacobson

Jai Hanson (’03) didn’t come to speak at Minnehaha Academy last year because he was looking for advice from teenagers.

He came because, like so many who make this campus what it is, he wanted to give back to the place that launched him into the world.

“I really enjoyed my time at Minnehaha,” he says. “I loved the staff, and I still have friendships with people I knew in seventh grade...once you’re part of the MA community you’re part of it for life.”

So when Director of Diversity Paulita Todhunter asked Hanson to come speak with some students who were expressing fear and anxiety regarding recent incidents between police and individuals of color, he said “Absolutely.”

At the time, Hanson had more than a decade of experience in law enforcement under his belt and was finishing his Master of Public Safety Administration. He also had a growing passion to see improvement in the relationship between the law enforcement community and youth.

“I think it was helpful for students to meet a police officer who was familiar with their story of being a Minnehaha student and a person of color, and what it's like to be in both of those worlds,” says Ms. Todhunter. “He also gave them insight into the world of a police officer, which isn't always as black and white as it may seem.”

Bringing Back Expertise

Over the years, alumni like Hanson have stepped up to speak in classes, invite students into their businesses, and even mentor students and recent grads. As a community, we’ve found that having alumni who come back to share their expertise with students fosters deeper learning, provides opportunities for exploration, and often can be the catalyst that casts vision for future direction.

“Speakers bringing in ‘real world’ related experiences help strengthen and solidify the material for my students,” shares Julie Johnson, psychology and business instructor.

Johnson points to David Kvasnik (‘96) and wife Deena. The couple have been guest presenters to her Intro to Business class a number of times. Deena and David started their business, Deena's Gourmet, and grew it from a small family venture to a large business in a matter of years, ultimately selling it to Old Home. Their talks have given students real world examples and the opportunity to ask questions.

Fostering Deeper Learning

 

(L) Alum Diana Wallin speaks to Upper School students about brain science and (R) uses special goggles to teach Lower School students about the brain's adaptability.

Another campus visitor who leaves a mark every time she comes is Diana Wallin (‘03). While working on her Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, Diana lived just over the river from Minnehaha Academy. During this time, she visited the Upper and Lower Schools multiple times with her “Brain Awareness” presentation, even bringing real brains (both human and animal) for students to study.

During one visit, Diana and fellow doctoral candidate Amanda Barks helped first graders develop their own scientific study:

Students stood in the hallway and tossed bean bags into a small cup. Then they put on special goggles that impaired their vision and tossed the bean bags again. All of the bean bags ended up to the right of the cup. They then took off the goggles and threw the bean bags again—this time they ended to the left of the cup. The students excitedly reviewed their “findings” to discover how the brain compensates for impaired vision.

Diana used this experience, along with a real human brain and spinal cord, to explain the concept of plasticity in the brain, as well as to teach students about brain health.

Even teacher Britt Guild was surprised at how much the students took away from the experience:

“Some students immediately made an intellectual connection between nerves and electricity while some connected emotionally to the experience after realizing the brain was from a real person. It was thrilling to see how no matter how complex we think an idea is, a young mind can surpass our expectations and understand so much more."

This opportunity to spark discovery in young minds is something Wallin herself finds rewarding:

“We always say you can’t do what you don’t see, or what you don’t know about.” She hopes that some students will discover a love for brain science and research, and that young women will see her work and recognize that there is a place for them in the world of science.

Offering Opportunities

 

Mason Mitchell (far left) and Michael Everett (far right) back when Mason first started volunteering and Michael was still a student.

Alumni involvement also means more opportunities to explore beyond the classroom.

For a number of years Mason Mitchell (’09) and Michael Everett (’14) have blocked off numerous afternoons and Saturdays each fall to support MA’s debate students.

Mitchell is a circulation supervisor at the University of St. Thomas library, and as a veteran debater himself with degrees in philosophy, theology, and business, Mitchell is a prime choice to advise a debate team. A JD candidate at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Everett is also highly qualified to teach students the finer points of debating.

As a young college student roughly a decade ago, Mitchell both missed his debate experience at MA and saw a genuine need: Minnehaha faculty Nathan Johnson was the only coach for a growing number of students.

“One of the best things that Minnehaha has to offer is that students aren’t just treated like kids,” observes Mitchell. He points out that students get to interact with teachers on a very personal level in small classes and that this experience pushes them to excellence and maturity. Seeing the growing size of the debate team, Mitchell wanted to come alongside Mr. Johnson to help give students that personalized growth experience.

Mitchell shares that debate offers a very specific growing experience that meant a lot to him as a student, and now he enjoys walking current students through that process.

“Debate forces you to not just work on your research skills, not just work on presentation skills, but to put it all together in one package and be more spontaneous and engaging.” He points out that even students who start out as reserved or “wall flowers” grow through the process until four years later some of those same students are the ones jumping at the chance to get up in front of the whole school to give a presentation.

Thanks to Mitchell, Everett, and others who have stepped in pro bono over the years, Minnehaha Academy offers debaters the chance to grow exponentially over the course of their Upper School career.

Casting Vision

 

One essential ingredient for growth is vision for where you are going. For Jonathan Thomas (‘11), speaking at MA was a chance to cast the same vision his mother set for him so many years ago: love Jesus and pursue education.

Thomas transferred to Minnehaha Academy as a seventh grader, a move instigated by his mother and one he was not happy about.

“I thought I was fine at the school I attended,” he says, “however my mother saw that I was going down a bad path with friends who didn’t have my best interests at heart.” His mother wanted to see Thomas in “a Christian environment that would foster healthy spiritual and intellectual development.” Thomas wasn’t particularly interested in either.

Fast forward nearly 15 years and Thomas is working towards a master’s degree in strategic leadership and has a side gig as a traveling preacher. He looks back on his time at MA as one of the most positive experiences in his life, and he wants current students to make the most of the opportunity they’ve been given.

Thomas, whose mother passed away while he was still at MA, exhorted students to trust God through trials and the sometimes bumpy transition to adulthood, as well as encouraged them to pursue higher education.

Because we never know what seed will be planted in a student’s heart—to nurture their spiritual walk, become an entrepreneur, face a challenge that feels bigger than themselves—we continue to invite alumni to share their stories with Minnehaha students.

Providing Opportunities for “Big Discussions”

All of this brings us back to Jai Hanson’s experience sharing at MA. In addition to sharing about his own journey as a police officer, Hanson wanted to open the floor for any lingering questions so students could process some of the “whys” behind law enforcement decisions. He also asked students what they wanted and needed from those in law enforcement.

To understand the dynamics of this discussion, it’s helpful to know that teachers work with Minnehaha students from a young age to develop the skills for having difficult conversations respectfully. This was an opportunity to put those skills into action, both for Hanson and the students.

What could have been a tense time actually resulted in a meaningful discussion that left an impact on both the students and Hanson himself.

“My intention was to go there to answer questions and help students,” says Hanson, “but I left with students’ perspectives that I brought back to my police department. The students really gave me more insight than I probably gave them. I took a lot away from that and I’m thankful for that.”

Ultimately, we’ve found that having an alumni community that reconnects with our students is a win-win: the students benefit from the experience and insight of alumni, and like Hanson often share that they took away something from the experience:

“It’s easy to get into your profession and just do your normal thing. When you talk to students it reminds you why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you got into your career.” For the students Hanson met with, it was a chance to both better understand all sides of a difficult story, as well as to have their voice heard in a meaningful way.

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