Luther Alumni Magazine

Senior snapshots

Pema LamaJenna Johnson,  Laura Proescholdt,  Fred ScaifeBlaise Schaeffer,  Catherine LewisSheldon Smith,  Jesse Hitz Graff

Asking “why” leads Pema Lama from isolation to global education

Pema Lama left home at seven years old. “All I knew back then was that the only way to escape getting married at 12 was to become a nun,” she says. Lama grew up in the mountain region of Nepal, in a farming village with no electricity or running water, where food was scarce, literacy was rare, and arranged and kidnapped marriages were common. Her mother gave birth to 13 children, eight of whom died. Between herself and her older sister, seven died in a row.

Pema Lama. Photo by Madeline Miller '19
Pema Lama. Photo by Madeline Miller '19

When Lama, the 12th child, was six years old, her eldest brother visited the village after 15 years of living as a reincarnated monk. “I’d never seen him, only heard of him, and then he came for three months,” she recalls. “I was really surprised that all the villagers were coming to visit him and bringing fruits and all these delicious things that us kids would have to steal sometimes, like walnuts. He was so clean, and everything looked so new, and people were so happy to be around him. And I was like, why are people not treating me the same?” And so began Lama’s lifetime of questioning.

She continues, “If I asked, Can I eat rice tonight? my parents would start giving me this long lecture about how rice is so hard to get, while he, without asking, would get all these special things that we would wait for. And I was like, is it just because he’s a guy? I was asking all these questions, like why is my rice so limited? And I thought at that time, If I just follow the rules, I will never be satisfied.”

For a year after her brother’s visit, Lama badgered her parents constantly to let her join a nunnery. “Buddhism was the only thing I could imagine at the time to escape from the life I knew I would live if didn’t choose a different path,” she says. Finally, her parents relented and sent her down the mountain, to Kathmandu.

“I made that almost two-week journey without family members, just a friend of my father’s whom I had met two or three times. I was so happy I don’t even remember crying. I was like, Finally, I get what I wanted!” she smiles.

The duo walked eight or nine hours a day down a steep mountain trail, and when they arrived in Kathmandu, Lama saw her first bicycle, first bus. “At that time, the only place I knew was the mountain,” she says.

The founder of the nunnery, Thrangu Rinpoche, took one look at Lama and said, “Uh-uh—it’s a lifetime commitment, and you’re too young to make that choice now.” But he offered her an alternative: attend his Shree Mangal Dvip (SMD) School instead.

At the SMD School, Lama learned in Tibetan, Nepali, and English (she speaks these languages as well as Hindi and her native dialect of Tibetan). She took classes from nuns, monks, and a cadre of visiting global volunteers. After graduating, she became one of the six or seven students asked to stay on for a year of service and, if things went well, earn a chance to attend high school abroad.

During her year of service, Lama took on the formidable task of teaching sex ed—a taboo subject in Buddhism—to area nunneries, monasteries, and schools. Lama had volunteered in the SMD health clinic for years, so she was used to dealing straightforwardly with bodies—but that doesn’t mean teaching sex ed was easy.

“The first few days no one spoke,” she says. “The other teachers and I were like, This is called this—but it’s not us talking, it’s the book! But by the end of the week, everyone was shouting and having fun. That was eye-opening,” she reflects, “and I started questioning: Why do I just follow whatever my religion says without even questioning whether it’s right or wrong?”

After her year of service, Lama was selected to attend a United World Colleges school in Norway, where she had her first encounter with philosophy. She walked into the classroom 20 minutes late on the first day of class, and the professor asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m Pema. I’m from Nepal,” she answered.

“No, who are you? What makes you who you are?”

“And I was stuck,” Lama recalls. “Since then, I’ve been reflecting: Who am I? What makes me me? When I react to certain things, what makes me react that way? What has formed me to do that thing? That class really blew me up.”

It’s no surprise that when Lama came to Luther, she majored in philosophy. “You decide things every day, and it’s important to know where your decision-making is coming from and where your ideas come from and why you have those ideas,” she says. “Philosophy makes me see through things, see myself and understand myself, but by understanding myself, I get to understand others.”

Lama starts a master’s program in Buddhist studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., this fall. “Every time I look back,” she says, “somehow my thoughts are guided by Buddhist ideals, but I still don’t know much about it. I want to see why I have those ideas, why I stand by what Buddha says.”

She’s also interested in learning more about gender in Buddhism. “It hurts me how some Buddhists say you have to be born as a man to become enlightened,” she says. “Why do men become the reincarnated one and women don’t? Where do I stand, and why do I follow that?”

Lama would like to return to Nepal someday and raise these questions with girls and women there. “If you don’t talk about it, you will never learn beyond it,” she says. “That’s one of my goals, to go back and tell people: Take initiative. Explore why you have certain values. Where are they coming from?”

—Kate Frentzel

Jenna Johnson learns to love research—and the little worm that makes it possible

Jenna Johnson can’t stop singing the praises of the tiny, transparent, E. coli–loving roundworms known officially as Caenorhabditis elegans.

Jenna Johnson. Photo by Madeline Miller '19
Jenna Johnson. Photo by Madeline Miller '19

“It’s an ideal model organism for doing research in developmental biology and neurology,” she says. “C. elegans has a very short life span, a lot of progeny, and a surprisingly similar genome to humans. They’re fascinating organisms.”

Johnson, a biology and history double major, was introduced to the microscopic worms while conducting research on the toxic gas hydrogen sulfide through the Amgen Scholars Program at the University of Washington in Seattle the summer after her sophomore year. It was a life-changing experience for the Stillwater, Minn., native and Phi Beta Kappa member, who also found time while at Luther to volunteer as a Spanish interpreter for the Decorah Free Clinic and a care companion with St. Croix Hospice. “I had no clue that I wanted to do research, but, after spending that summer at UW, I felt really drawn to it,” she says. “I learned how to troubleshoot problems—because most of the time what you do in the research lab doesn’t work—and how to fail gracefully. I also experienced the joy of success in the lab, and that’s a pretty cool feeling.”

Johnson continued doing research with C. elegans when she returned to Luther, joining the lab of Stephanie Fretham ’05, Luther assistant professor of biology, in fall 2014. There she used the microscopic organism to examine the connection between iron and disrupted protein homeostasis in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Johnson presented her work—which was supported by an R.J. McElroy Grant—at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) last April. “I never expected to love the research process so much, but knowing that I am contributing to the body of scientific knowledge—and that at any moment in time I may be the only person in the world that knows this one particular thing—is very much a driving force for me,” says Johnson, who also spent the summer after her junior year conducting research, that time on protein and DNA interactions at the University of Iowa.

This summer Johnson moved to the East Coast, where she will spend the next year (or two) conducting research at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md., as the recipient of a highly competitive Post-baccaulaureate Cancer Research Training Award. It’s the next step toward her ultimate goal—earning a joint M.D./Ph.D. degree and working as an academic physician at a large university. “During the summer I spent at the University of Iowa, I shadowed doctors who had the joint degree and realized that this is the career I wanted,” she says. “I love the idea that my experience as a doctor will inform my research, and I’m willing to put in the time—eight or nine more years of school—to make that happen.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam

Laura Proescholdt connects issues of environment and social change

Nearly 10 years later, Laura Proescholdt recalls the exact moment she decided to pursue environmental studies.

“I was in seventh grade and had just finished watching the documentary An Inconvenient Truth,” she says. “It may sound cliché, but I felt compelled then and there to learn all I could about climate change, because I saw it as the defining issue my generation would have to tackle.”

Laura Proescholdt. Photo by Madeline Miller '19
Laura Proescholdt. Photo by Madeline Miller '19

Proescholdt did just that at Luther. In addition to earning induction into the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society for excelling in her studies, she served as an academic research assistant for the college’s Environmental Studies Department. (A talented writer, Proescholdt wrote for Chips and the Luther Sustainability Office as well.)

Her studies culminated in a yearlong senior honors research project on the Anthropocene, a term coined in 2000 to denote the period when human activities started to affect Earth’s geology and ecosystem significantly. “I examined why making the Anthropocene official matters to the scientific community and to academia more broadly and how it creates a dynamic space for rethinking relationships among science, politics, and activism,” says Proescholdt, who presented her research at the 2016 National Conferences on Undergraduate Research. “My main takeaway was that the Anthropocene is a fascinating tool to reimagine the human relationship with Earth.”

Her natural curiosity also led the Cumberland, Wis., native—sister of Anne Proescholdt ’12— far beyond Decorah. She spent January of her junior year in Hong Kong and Shanghai, China, studying street photography and the summer of her sophomore year working as an expressive arts intern with Northwest Passage, a Wisconsin-based organization that helps troubled teens through the arts and nature-based therapy. “That experience opened my eyes to the importance of nature as a healing force, because the time the teens spent outside connecting with nature was very healing for them,” she says. “It also inspired me to use my major less to address climate change or biodiversity directly but to work on solving systemic social problems, because I believe environmental problems have to be addressed in those efforts.”

Proescholdt put her words to action this summer when she began a yearlong Lutheran Volunteer Corps stint with the Minnesota Housing Partnership, a Twin Cities–based organization that works to build sustainable communities. “I’ve spent a lot of time learning about issues,” she says enthusiastically. “Now I’m ready to use that knowledge to make positive change.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam

Fred Scaife documents the transformative power of music

Saturday mornings would have been an ideal time for Fred Scaife to catch up on sleep after a virtually non-stop weekday schedule.

But the Rushford, Minn., native decided to pursue a very different kind of rejuvenation, rising early every Saturday from October through December 2015 to engage elderly residents of the Gundersen Harmony Care Center in song.

Fred Scaife. Photo by Will Heller '16
Fred Scaife. Photo by Will Heller '16

“The main goal of the Voices in Harmony Memory Choir was to inspire seniors through music and instill a love of lifelong learning,” says Scaife, a music education major and former Nordic Choir president who now serves as the middle and high school choral director for Wapsie Valley Schools in Fairbank, Iowa. “It was inspiring to see the joy that music can bring to so many, including some who may not have much else in their lives.”

Randi Spencer-Berg ’87—longtime music lover and Harmony-based physician—got it all started when she asked Luther faculty member Jill Wilson if she knew any music education students who might be interested in working with a group of seniors, some with memory loss.

Scaife jumped at the chance. “Nursing homes and assisted living communities were familiar environments for me because, growing up, I visited them with my dad when he was doing pastoral work,” he says. “I knew I would enjoy being around—and learning from—the seniors at the care center in Harmony.”

The feeling was mutual. More than two dozen residents joined Scaife (and sometimes other music education students) each week for hour-long sessions during which they would sing familiar folk songs such as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and play jingle bells, chimes, and other simple percussion instruments.

The sessions also inspired Scaife’s senior research project, conducted with Sarah Bowman ’16, which investigated the transformative power of music among the elderly. “We filmed the sessions and then analyzed the film for behavioral changes in the participants from the beginning to the end of the program,” he says.

Their conclusion: The more engaged the residents were in the music, the more responsive and lively they became over the course of the program.

“It was amazing to see that transformation, to see how music positively impacts both the body and the mind, no matter one’s age,” Scaife says. “To be there and to witness that reminded me that a career in music education was, without a doubt, my calling.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam

Blaise Schaeffer turns ideas into action, from helping a food pantry to an IBM project

Blaise Schaeffer learned early in life that Decorah is home to many people in need.

Blaise Schaeffer. Photo by Will Heller '16
Blaise Schaeffer. Photo by Will Heller '16

“I grew up across the street from the food pantry operated by First Lutheran Church so I saw how many people came there for help,” he says. “I’m very fortunate that I’ve never had to worry about where my next meal is coming from, but there are lots of people in and around Decorah who face hunger every day.”

That realization inspired him to create Dining Dollars for Decorah as his service project for the Launching Luther Leaders program. To turn his idea into reality, Schaeffer—son of Scot Schaeffer, Luther vice president for enrollment management—sought out the expertise of Wayne Tudor, dining services general manager. The two devised a plan to encourage Luther students to donate any excess dining dollars in their accounts to buy food that the pantry desperately needed. “We raised nearly $3,000, which bought two six-foot-tall pallets of rice, beans, oats, and pasta,” says Schaeffer, a computer science major and four-year member (goalie) of the Norse soccer team. “It was mind-blowing to realize that one simple idea could make such a big difference for so many people.”

That can-do attitude translated to success well beyond Luther (and Decorah) as well. Following his junior year, Schaeffer was one of five college students—including Michael Moore ’16—chosen by the Rochester (Minn.) office of IBM to develop an administrators’ console for its Watson Oncology Advisor program. “The console will help hospital administrators better understand how physicians are using the program in their clinics,” he says. Schaeffer spearheaded the project’s “back end” development, writing the source code needed for delivery of data to its “front end.” The project  took top honors in IBM’s national summer intern competition in August 2015. “We were confident in the work we had done, but there were a lot of other cool projects—including image-recognition projects created by graduate students—in the running,” he says. “We were a bit shocked to win the award.”

Not surprisingly, IBM extended Schaeffer a formal job offer to work as a software engineer on its Watson Health Project following graduation. He began his job—at the company’s Raleigh, N.C., site—in August after returning from a 3,900-mile summer cycling adventure that took him across the United States, from Anacortes, Wash., to Bar Harbor, Maine. “It’s a pretty nerdy thing to say, but I love computer programming,” he says with a smile. “I’ve had an interest in technology for as long as I can remember, and I love the challenge of designing algorithms to solve real-world problems.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam 

Catherine Lewis explores how dance alumni use movement in their careers

Catherine Lewis has explored a few careers, but it’s her dance practice that’s shaping how she’d like to help people. 

“I’ve always known I wanted to be a helper or a healer or some profession in that realm,” says the amiable Minnesotan. “But I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out: if my fit’s not in nursing, where is it?”

Catherine Lewis. Photo by Will Heller '16
Catherine Lewis. Photo by Will Heller '16

As a first-year student, Lewis was drawn to nursing because it offered a guaranteed career, but her embodied experience—what she learned in her dance and yoga practices—left her, she says, “searching for ways to communicate what I practice and feel in my body.”

Lewis changed her major from nursing to psychology and dance, where she felt at home with professor Jane Hawley ’87 and the Movement Fundamentals (MF) curriculum, which teaches somatic practices rather than specific styles of dance. Still interested in health work, however, she spent the summer of 2015 interning in Minnesota at Northfield Hospital & Clinics, where she got to job shadow in every field, including occupational therapy.

“A lot of what they were doing felt similar to one of the paired principles of MF, which is range and efficiency,” Lewis says. “One patient broke both arms, and she had to learn to use her nondominant hand and regain mobility in her shoulder. The occupational therapist’s job was to give her tools to live comfortably until her range changed again. That creativity is compelling to me.”

Still, Lewis felt disheartened by the idea that the work was reactive rather than preventive. “You’re waiting until someone has a reason to come see you, and I think if we trained people to use their bodies more effectively in the first place, then a lot of rehabilitation work wouldn’t be needed,” she says. “And unfortunately, only a small percentage of the population can afford to receive occupational therapy, and that’s a problem for me too.”

Unclear about how she could use her embodiment practices in a future career, Lewis devised an ambitious project. She applied for and received a grant from Luther’s Career Center, funded by an anonymous donor, to invite back to campus six graduates of the MF program who use the concepts in their professional lives. The graduates, who range from a chiropractor to a freelance dancer to a cook, shared their stories with the Luther community last semester.

“The MF curriculum is producing really important individuals. It’s producing professional dancers, but also people who are going into health or healing,” she says. “I saw each of the alumni using the MF curriculum in a way that’s meaningful for them; they transfer what they’ve learned and help people live in their bodies physically, or use the body in a counseling practice. It was really comforting and affirming to see that.”

Lewis started an occupational therapy master’s program at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee this fall.

—Kate Frentzel

For Sheldon Smith, sports serve to connect with kids, define his path in life

Sheldon Smith lights up when he talks about wrestling. “What made me really get engaged in it was that I’m a fan of close-combat movies, and the moves and the flow, getting in the groove—I see it almost as a set of dance moves,” he says. He took up the sport in high school in Sunrise, Fla., and was recruited to Luther’s wrestling team after a friend sent in a tape of his matches.

Sheldon Smith. Photo by Will Heller '16
Sheldon Smith. Photo by Will Heller '16

One thing that Smith loves about the sport is the chance to hold himself accountable and improve on his mistakes, and that’s a lesson he carried into his academic life when he decided to join the TRIO program during J-term his first year at Luther. “I struggled with a couple of things, and my mindset wasn’t really ready for that college-level learning,” he says. “They were offering help, and they gave me the academic tools I needed for class. It really made me hold myself more accountable.”

Smith is the first person in his family to attend college, and it’s important to him to set an example for his siblings, in particular his younger sister. “She asks a lot of questions about college, and it’s cool to see she’s at least thinking about it at 15,” he says.

After deciding on a social work major his freshman year, Smith did two externships at the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, once shadowing a court marshal and once a probation officer. But he approaches his future career much like a wrestler sizing up an opponent: with great care and deliberation.

During his summers at Luther, Smith worked as a counselor at Luther’s wrestling camps for middle and high school students. “The first year, I didn’t know what to expect or if kids would like me, but it turned out really well,” he says. “I had a good time, they had a good time, and after thinking some more, I decided that I wanted to work with kids, maybe troubled youth.”

So for his in-field practicum his senior year, Smith decided to work with Girls in the Game, a nonprofit that empowers girls in Chicago to lead healthy, positive, confident lives.

Smith worked with an afterschool program on Chicago’s South Side, coordinating sports and other activities and leading conversations about health and leadership. The experience reinforced that he’d like to work with kids in middle or early high school. “That age group strikes me because they’re beginning to think on their own,” he says. “I see the changes that they make while being involved in the program. It’s an awesome experience just observing some of those changes, and that’s where I can be most beneficial. That’s where I can make the most happen. That’s where I can help.”
Smith plans to spend a year gaining experience in a youth-oriented program before starting a master’s program in social work.

—Kate Frentzel

Jesse Hitz Graff credits family with helping to develop his strengths

Jesse Hitz Graff grew up with seven siblings across three households, and he gives credit to his family for setting him on the path to Luther and beyond.

“You feel loved when you come home,” he says. “All the siblings mob you at the door. I’d much rather have three houses where I’m accepted than one where I’m not. My family’s built me into the person I am.”

Jesse Hitz Graff. Photo by Will Heller '16
Jesse Hitz Graff. Photo by Will Heller '16

It’s easy to see how Hitz Graff’s family dynamics have influenced his Luther career. For one thing, it was his older brother, Isaac ’14, an Ultimate Frisbee player, who brought Jesse to Luther. “St. Olaf and Carleton didn’t have Isaac, and they didn’t have Isaac on an Ultimate team,” he jokes. He describes getting involved with Luther’s Ultimate B-team, Pound, which he captained for two years, as “the best decision I made at Luther. My first home here was Pound.”

It was because he missed his younger siblings that Hitz Graff became a buddy in Luther’s PALS program, where he acted as a role model for an area student. “You take a lot of what you do in college for granted, you get tired often, so it’s cool to have the young, vibrant enthusiasm and the wonder of a child in your life,” he says.

You could say, too, that family dynamics helped Hitz Graff excel in math and science. “The only medals I have from childhood are three math competition medals. Especially when you have a household of eight siblings, you try to find the things that make you unique,” he says.

Last summer, Hitz Graff worked in the lab of Erin Flater ’01, associate professor of physics, to study the durability and longevity of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) devices, which are found in everything from cell phones to airbags. He focused on how silicon oxide wears on aluminum oxide, two common MEMS materials, to try to determine whether laws that govern the wear of surfaces of large objects also apply at the microscale (he concluded that they do not). Hitz Graff presented his research at the Midstates Consortium for Math and Science in Chicago last fall.

This fall, he begins a Ph.D. program in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota. Growing up, his dad would have “lamp hours,” when the family would turn off overhead lights, so environmentalism was already in Hitz Graff’s mind when he took Luther’s J-term class Green Germany and Norway in 2015. Most of the renewable-energy experts the class learned from were working in electrical engineering, and that sealed the deal. “I don’t see myself as a volunteer or nonprofit worker,” he says, “but I can use whatever tools I get as an engineer to improve renewable energy and give back that way.”

—Kate Frentzel

Photos by Will Heller '16 and Madeline Miller '19