Faculty Spotlight: Karen Schmitt, Ph.D.
Dean, Community & Technical College
Hometown: Columbus, Wisconsin
Fun Fact: She and her husband are winners of the Spirit of Admiralty sailboat race, the longest inland water sailboat race on the West Coast.
Some moments in college are transformative when, due to fate, chance, or providence, you just happen to be in the right place at the right time. For Karen Schmitt, dean of the UAA Community & Technical College, that moment came during the fall of 1980 while registering for courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In the early ’80s, course registration required more than filling out a form online and hitting the submit button. Instead, students had to register in person with each department, which meant traveling to multiple locations on campus to secure a seat in a particular course.
The whole process required careful planning—identifying the right courses and then mapping the most efficient campus route. When registration opened, Schmitt waited in line at the Stock Pavilion with thousands of other sophomores—all clamoring to pick up their forms so they could begin the process.
After receiving her paperwork, she arrived at her first destination and signed up for organic chemistry, but when she tried to sign up for Geography 101, things got interesting.
“This isn’t geography,” said the staff member assisting her. “This is geology. If you want geography, that’s in the red gym.”
The red gym was more than a mile away, and time was not on her side. Knowing that geology and geography were interchangeable in the degree requirements and discovering that the times for both sections were the same, she decided to enroll in Geology 101 instead.
“I got a perfectly good schedule, and I was so relieved,” said Schmitt. “That is literally the non-decision that changed my life. So, you have these moments when you’re a student that you never know will change the rest of your life.”
Five minutes into her first geology class, she was hooked. Lloyd Pray, the professor, launched the course with photos of mountain climbing in the Alps. She knew then that was what she wanted to do. A small-town girl who had grown up on her family’s Wisconsin dairy farm, she was eager to see the world. She spent the next semester with a full course load of integrated science classes followed by a field trip to the Yukon that summer where she spent time in both Canada and Alaska.
When she returned, she immediately changed her major from education to geology.
“I tell that story to freshman all the time because you never know,” she said. “You need to explore, and you need to try things. College has so much to offer.”
From New Zealand to Antarctica
With a desire to travel and plans to pursue graduate work following completion of her bachelor’s degree, Schmitt determined she wanted to conduct research abroad, so she began pursuing scholarships. That’s when the U.S. Student Fulbright Program caught her eye. It provided funding for graduate scientific research, and New Zealand was a potential host country.
She applied for the highly competitive program and was awarded a year-long fellowship. The funding enabled her to complete her master’s in geology at New Zealand’s University of Otago. She spent her time studying fluvial sediments (river rocks) in ancient rivers in the Central South Island—all while taking in the stunning scenery of the Southern Alps. The data gathered helped correlate when glaciers first developed on the island. She presented a paper on her findings at the Geological Society of New Zealand’s annual conference, which was well-received by South Island geologists.
After returning to the United States Schmitt attended Columbia University in New York to complete her doctoral degree. She selected Columbia in part because of its long-standing program in Antarctica. She had received a grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research in the Chilean Patagonia and the Antarctic Peninsula. Over the next three years, she participated in multiple scientific research cruises to do reconnaissance mapping along the Chilean and Antarctic coasts. It was the first time some areas had been mapped.
A typical cruise would last for two to three weeks at a time. Each morning, she and other researchers would take a Zodiac from the vessel to the shore where they would backpack and collect geological samples. The process was slow because there was very little passable shoreline between the sea and the towering Andes Mountains. At night, they returned to the vessel to work on preliminary processing of the samples.
The work focused on creating a timeline for when the Southern Andes and the Antarctic Peninsula developed by determining the age of the rocks in the region. At one time, the Andes were 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. Researchers hoped to get a more precise idea of when the range actually surfaced. Schmitt specifically studied sediments, looking for areas where deformation beneath the surface had occurred due to violent shaking of earthquakes that accompanied the rise of the mountain range.
Leading a research cruise
While she enjoyed the research, she found herself more and more intrigued by the logistics of running a research cruise. As she sat back and observed the crew, she thought to herself, “I could do that.”
With the majority of her doctoral fieldwork complete, she decided to apply for a position as a marine projects coordinator with ITT Antarctic Services, knowing the three-months-on, three-months-off contract would give her ample time over the next few years to conduct additional fieldwork and write her dissertation.
“I sold myself as the scientist who can help the scientists,” she said. “They bought it and let me try.”
As the marine projects coordinator, Schmitt consulted on the logistics, supplies and materials needed for each research cruise she led from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Antarctica. She had a few direct reports, but she was also responsible for the 30-plus scientists aboard the vessel during each cruise. She made sure the scientists got to and from Antarctica with all their research equipment and that samples they gathered were shipped back to their respective educational institutions. She also coordinated the delivery of mail, groceries, fuel and other supplies with the manager at Palmer Station, the U.S. research base on the Antarctic Peninsula.
“We worked closely with the station. They had about 40 personnel, staff and scientists, on site down there on the peninsula. Those people had to stay there all the time,” said Schmitt. “We always got to port every 30 days, and we got to go back and forth and see all over Antarctica. It really was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in terms of interesting and amazing things.”
The job also afforded Schmitt the opportunity to meet interesting and amazing people, including her now husband, Mike Rentel from Valdez, Alaska. He was hired to be the Palmer Station engineer, which meant he was two-parts engineer, one-part magician. In the harsh Antarctic wilderness, it took a little magic to keep all the water, heat and electrical systems on the base running. He had joined the research cruise during the September 1988 trip to Palmer Station on the way to his new post.
Between the time he boarded the ship and the time he got off, he had managed to make all the repairs the vessel needed.
“That’s what impressed me about him,” said Schmitt. “He could fix anything.”
Succeeding in a man’s world
But not every person she encountered while aboard the vessel was interesting, amazing or even pleasant. The fact she was a woman sometimes caused the crew to give her the side eye. Schmitt took it all in stride. Geology had been a male-dominated field, and running research cruises was no different in that regard.
“Growing up on a farm, I worked with guys all the time there, and it just didn’t ever bother me too much,” she said. “My parents were very egalitarian. It’s like ‘girls can do anything, so here are the chores.’ There really is sort of that (mentality) if you think you can do it and try, often you can.”
Because she spoke Spanish fluently, Schmitt became a valuable asset, leveraging her language skills to run all the port calls and communicate with the Chilean authorities. A woman giving orders to a team of men in Chile was unprecedented.
Not long after, she discovered that word about the female marine projects coordinator had spread among the local boatmen. While running port operations in Chile, she was making small talk with a pilot who was eager to use his fledgling English skills. He asked what she did on the boat. When he found out she was the marine projects coordinator, he attempted to compliment her.
“I have heard of you. You are that ‘bad’ girl,” he said, trying to convey his respect for her toughness. “I heard you are in charge of everything.”
A nontraditional leader
Being in charge of operations aboard the research vessel was not a task that Schmitt took lightly, and the leadership and managerial skills she developed while on the job were ones she would later bring to her work in education as an executive-level administrator.
During the next decade, she gained a plethora of experience in academic administration at the University of Washington and leveraged opportunities to be mentored by others in the field. Over time, she built a successful track record in a number of areas, from growing academic programs to developing noncredit instructional programs to building community partnerships. This paved the way for her to join the University of Alaska system, first, as a dean at the University of Alaska Southeast and, finally, as the dean of the Community & Technical College at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Her move to UAA in 2009 was prompted by the work she saw the university doing to build student success, encourage faculty excellence, engage the community and respond to state workforce development needs. While administration of a community and technical college may not have been in her sights when she completed her doctoral studies in geology, few things about Schmitt’s career could be considered conventional.
“I’m inspired by nontraditional thinkers and nontraditional doers,” she said. “It’s kind of neat because our college is all about nontraditional students and nontraditional faculty.”
With a leader like Schmitt at the helm, it appears CTC is right on course.
Note: This story written by Kirstin Olmstead originally appeared in the Community & Technical College’s Insider blog on Jan. 29, 2014.