Don't miss this interview between U-M's Adam Eickmeyer and mentor Dr. Laura Olsen.
How did you decide to Go Blue?
AE: I had been a Michigan fan since I was a kid; none of my family members had gone there (or to college generally), and I wanted to be the first. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I knew it was a good school. I had a family friend who did his medical training at MSU, so by the time college applications came around, I was much more excited by my MSU admission offer than the one from Michigan. Internally, I was still a bit torn, but made my plans to attend MSU. Then, I got home one evening and my mom told me a professor – Dr. Laura Olsen – from Michigan had called our house asking to talk to me. I had no idea what that was about, but I emailed her back the next day, forewarning her that my heart was at MSU, but I’d be open to hearing more about Michigan.
A few weeks later, Laura got me on a train to Ann Arbor, where I met her, some other faculty/staff members, and a student (who conveniently had just transferred from MSU). She showed me that at Michigan – even though there are a lot of students – professors truly care about students as individuals. After my weekend at Michigan, I retracted my enrollment at MSU and made my decision: I was coming to Ann Arbor!
LO: During my second year as a postdoctoral scholar at UC-Davis, I began applying for faculty positions. I was one of about 200 applicants for my job at U-M, but I was lucky enough to get an interview and then a job offer. I knew several of the other faculty in the biology department at the time, and knew that the research quality and faculty support here would not be found anywhere else. I arrived here in August 1993, and the rest is history.
How did you meet and what initially drew you to each other?
AE: I debated calling/emailing Laura back after she had cold-called my house and talked to my mom, but some sort of gut reaction said I had to return her call. That decision was quite literally life altering. So, a phone call connected us, but Laura’s dedication to helping students is what cemented our relationship.
In one of her first emails to me, she told me that she was not here to try to twist my arm to attend Michigan, but rather to make sure I had the information I needed to make an informed choice. She knew my parents never attended college and I probably didn’t know what I was doing (she was right), but wanted me to be in the driver’s seat for this major decision. That philosophy continued as she mentored me throughout college, graduate school, and now as a colleague.
LO: LSA used to host these sessions called “Faculty Call-Outs,” where a group of us would spend an evening sitting in an LSA cubicle calling admitted students who had not yet matriculated (mostly leaving phone messages and talking to parents). Adam’s name and number were on my list one night. I could tell when I talked with his mother that she really wanted him to give the U-M option another chance. When I talked to him the next day or so, he told me he hadn’t even been down to visit the campus, but would be interested in seeing it (even though he was pretty sure he was going to go to MSU). So I called the amazing Susan Perreault (LSA Student Recruitment) and asked if we could put Adam on a train or something and arrange a visit.
She promptly made travel arrangements; I made appointments for him to meet and talk with faculty, applicable programs (e.g., UROP), and a few students. One of my current mentees at the time, Alex, had recently transferred from MSU expressly because of the medical school here. Adam wanted to go to medical school, so I had him meet and talk with Alex too. Adam came for a two-day visit in April of his senior year of high school. I hosted that visit, and have reaped the benefits of it ever since. Interestingly, neither Adam nor Alex ended up going to medical school here, but both people have built strong lives and rewarding careers as a result of their undergraduate time at U-M.
How has your relationship enriched your life?
AE: If I had to identify one single person who has helped me get to where I am today, it would be Laura. I know it’s a bit cliché, but it is absolutely true. Since that first email exchange, Laura has wanted nothing other than to support me and help me thrive. During my undergrad years, we met almost monthly (and much more frequently when I was in crisis mode(s)). Sometimes it was to discuss one of the 17 majors I was considering, other times it was to discuss campus issues, and other times it was just because I needed someone to talk to about life. After recovering from mono that I came down with while taking one of Laura’s courses, she had me over to her house to meet her Dalmatians, eat a home-cooked meal, and get help with the course material. She is the pinnacle example of professors who go above and beyond for their students. I benefited greatly from that mindset, and now I try to embody it with my own students.
Now, Laura and I get to work together! We lead two of the Michigan Learning Communities, and last semester even taught a course together for the LSA Honors Program. Combining Laura’s expertise in biology and mine in public health, we taught a course on the interdisciplinary nature of cancer to show students the importance of thinking from multiple perspectives to solve complex health issues. It was almost surreal to think that about 10 years ago, Laura was calling me to recruit me to Michigan, and in the present moment we were teaching students who had recently decided to Go Blue themselves. It was one of life’s “full circle” moments at its finest.
LO: Adam was great fun to mentor as an undergraduate. I think he changed majors nearly every week during his first semester, and then monthly for another year after that. This meant that I was always investigating new paths for him, and listening to his whirling thought processes. I enjoyed exposing him to new experiences, such as sushi and Dalmatians. He was always very open-minded and willing to try almost anything. Adam was a constant reminder for me that students have a lot going on outside of their classes that we, as faculty, don’t always recognize.
Co-teaching a course with him last semester really brought home how far we have both come. He has helped me to continue to view other students in a much more three-dimensional perspective. He has helped me understand the challenges he and others have faced choosing majors and developing their identities. He has helped make my own career path and life more interesting and rewarding.
What advice would you give to prospective U-M students?
AE: I like things in threes, so here are a few that have helped me.
1. Good mentors are the key to success. They will cultivate the good in you, and be there for you when bad times strike. I tell my students to think of themselves as a company – of which they are the CEO – and to think of their mentors as their board of directors, providing them with advice to help make major decisions. The critical part, though, is everyone needs mentors who are going to tell them what they don’t want to hear sometimes. Those are the mentors who will make you grow and flourish, because they will challenge you to think harder, differently, or sometimes stop thinking so much! You’ll never learn if your mentors agree with you 100% of the time.
Additionally, your mentors don’t need to have the same job that you want someday. I never thought I would be a biology professor, yet Laura has remained one of the most influential people in my life. Find people from whom you can learn how to be a well-rounded, good person. And for those of you who are reading this and considering coming to Michigan, know that there are so many instructors here who fit that description and who love helping students.
2. Interact with people who are different than you, in college and beyond. I came to Michigan from an extremely homogeneous town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Being at Michigan showed me a lot more of what the world has to offer. I found that I loved talking with people who had different opinions than me, because it helped me realize why I felt certain ways about certain things (and changed my mind on many topics). It’s easy, especially with social media, to surround yourself with friends who think the same way as you do on almost every issue, but the real learning happens when you talk with people who have different identities, backgrounds, and experiences.
3. It’s normal to have bumps in the road. For some students, college is a breeze. For the other 99.99%, there are some hiccups along the way. What’s important is that you remember it’s normal to not be perfect (repeat after me: it’s normal to not be perfect). While you may hyperfocus on your peers’ successes and your own shortcomings, remember that challenges are usually temporary, and you can recover from almost anything.
My first semester was not pretty, and I considered dropping out. I had some mentors keep me afloat, and then I got the hang of things for a couple of years. And then organic chemistry happened in tandem with a mono diagnosis, and that semester was again not pretty. Life happens, but you can’t let it get the best of you. I didn’t finish college with a 4.0 (truth be told, I don’t know anyone that did), but that didn’t stop me from building an extremely fulfilling life and career for myself.
LO: I like odd numbers, so I will take my cues from Adam’s lead (above).
1. Find your niche. This means finding a group to which you can belong, with whom you share some interests and values. That group might be a Michigan Learning Community, like the ones Adam and I each direct. It might be a fraternity or sorority. It might be a club or sports team (intramural teams are plentiful) or a research lab. Regardless, it is very important to find a group of people ASAP who can help make this big school feel smaller and more welcoming.
2. Ask questions. This is an easy way to start talking to people. You should try to talk to students in your residence hall, students in your classes, GSIs, professors, and anyone else you encounter. The range of opportunities here is huge, and talking to other people will help you both focus on the ones most interesting to you, and to explore ones that you might not know anything about. This advice also includes the standard “go to office hours” statement. I know that everyone says it, but we really mean it.
3. Listen to your heart and take care of yourself. This means that you should not feel trapped into a single major or career trajectory. You should explore widely! Even if you are sure you want to go to medical or law school eventually, explore other options. You should be able to articulate why you are CHOOSING the major or career path that is best for you.
As you go through college, you change. It is perfectly reasonable that your goals and interests will change too. And along the way, you need to take care of your own physical and mental well-being. This means getting enough sleep and eating regularly. It is up to you to choose the direction of your academic pursuits and only you can really take care of yourself.
How has being First Gen impacted your college and post-college experience?
AE: I didn’t know I was First Gen until about my junior year of college. Obviously I knew that my parents hadn’t gone to college, but I didn’t realize there was an actual name for it, or that it shaped some of my experiences as a college student. A lot of my friends were able to call their parent(s) to get school advice, but that wasn’t really an option for me. My parents have always been supportive, but they just didn’t have the experience to be able to help guide me in certain ways.
My dad told me that his biggest goal for me was to get out of our hometown and get an education so I could have the career I wanted, and I will always remember the sacrifices he and my mom made to make that possible. My parents were always there to listen if I needed to vent, and made lots of car rides to Ann Arbor to celebrate my successes. Thankfully, I also had Laura who could (and did!) help me with those other questions, and taught me to be my own advocate.
Now, I try to pay that forward. My First Gen identity has strongly influenced how I teach and mentor students. I make sure not to assume that students know what office hours are, or that they know how to write a professional email; I remember that First Gen students have a lot of stumbling blocks in figuring out how the whole college/adult life works, and I want to be there to help them along the way. I remember my experience as a boy from a working class family in the U.P. whose life was completely transformed thanks to a college education.
LO: When I was a First Gen college student in the last century, I moved into my dorm room with two suitcases. I earned a merit-based scholarship for tuition, room, and board. I had work-study jobs for spending money. I had my own bed and a desk for the first time! When my roommate went home for a weekend, I realized that I had never spent the night by myself in a room before. I learned how to watch other people around me. I learned that it was up to me to gather the information that I didn’t even know I needed and to make decisions for myself. In some ways, graduate school was even harder because it was even further from any kind of family experience I had grown up with.
As a professor, I feel like my background has helped me to be a better teacher and more involved mentor. I want to help other students, from similar backgrounds, to succeed. When I am with other professors, I have mostly learned how to “pass” – as if I have always known what it is to live the privileged life I have now. I appreciate the opportunities I have had, and I want to help my students realize their potential and discover their dreams.