The world is a big place. It’s an obvious statement, but one that sometimes gets lost in an increasingly segmented higher-education system. Secluded within high-pressure majors, students might be forgiven for forgetting that there are things beyond calculus and chemistry lab or lit theory and the essay on Chaucer due at noon.
This was emphatically not the case with the two Jannen Renaissance Scholar awardees this year. Nicole Walters, a chemical engineer, never neglected her love of music and writing. Mikaela Gerba, a social studies education major, continued to work on car engines, to practice her Polish, and to earn a second teaching certification in English. Throughout their careers at Trine, these two students exemplified the ideals of the Renaissance – seeking to understand the world through all the myriad methods available to them.
Gerba learned her love of languages early. Her mother spoke fluent Spanish, her grandparents Czech, and her best friend, Polish. Despite feeling “overwhelmed” by the flood of languages as a child, she embraced the challenge. In high school, she took American Sign Language and Spanish. Later, she would begin studying Polish on her own. She traveled to Mexico, Canada, Poland, and the Czech Republic, learned to appreciate craft beer as well as the unique, sometimes painful histories of those countries.
At the same time, she remained grounded with a hobby much closer to her Midwestern roots. She fixed cars. “Before I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be a mechanic,” Gerba says. Her mechanic uncle indulged her interest, teaching her about gears and pistons and the art and craft of vehicle repair. Today she lavishes attention on her Cannon Rebel Ti and spends long hours with her uncle in the garage.
All the while, she planned to be a social studies teacher. But she fell into English courses along the way, and learned to love them. She took Shakespeare, studied Norse mythology, and dipped her toes into American and British literature. By the time she was done she’d not only earned a humanities minor with a focus in literature but been hired as an English teacher at Angola High School. It is fitting that her career path exemplifies the ideals of a liberal arts – or shall we say “Renaissance” – education: You follow all the paths you can and are happily surprised by where you end up.
Walters is a chemical engineer. She is also the recipient of the Robert B. Stewart award, the highest honor awarded a Trine graduate each year. In just a few months she will begin a doctoral program at Ohio State University. At first glance, her career path may seem more predicable than Gerba’s. But first glances are deceiving. Walters embraced every opportunity the humanities side of the university had to offer.
Her first love was music. She joined the marching band, the pep band, and the wind ensemble, playing both the trumpet and the French horn. As if that weren’t enough, she volunteered to be part of the pit orchestra in Angola High School’s production of Oklahoma! and sang weekly at the Christian Campus House’s praise and worship service. Far from seeing these experiences as a chore, Walters felt they invigorated her. “After a day of intellectual stimulation,” she said, “it is important for any engineer to awaken his/her heart.”
She wrote, too. For three years running, she entered and placed in Trine’s annual Walter Cunningham Writing Contest. Once, as might be expected, her award was for a paper on her scientific research: “Detection and Prevention of Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis Infection in Dairy Cattle: A Review.” The other two times, though, the honor was for her work writing fiction.
Like Gerba, Walters’ many academic interests were accompanied by earthier pursuits, specifically cows. She participated in the North American International Livestock Expedition, the Guernsey Association Annual Convention, and the Ohio State Dairy Fair Skillathon. It is perhaps these varied interests — both high-flown and down-to-earth—that inspired Walters’ speech to her fellow graduates at commencement. She told them that their worth was not in their degree or in their honors, but in who they were.
Gerba would no doubt second this sentiment. In their time at Trine, both women have opened themselves to all that the big world had to offer, and, paradoxically, learned that who they are is far more valuable than where they are or what they are doing. We can’t wait to see what both of them will do next.