The Augsburg Podcast

The Augsburg Podcast

Michael Wentzel: Teaching Excellence

October 12, 2018

Michael Wentzel: One of the things I always tell students is I didn't come here to be average, and neither did they. And we're not gonna be average. We're gonna be excellent. All I ever will ask of them is their best every day. But I want the best. Let's be great.

Maybe I'm overly competitive. That's a problem. But (laughing) that's kind of where I, that's kind of how I view it.

Paul Pribbenow: Even as he teaches chemistry, Professor Michael [Wentzel 00:00:21] also teaches persistence. The drive to try, fail, and try again. To be better than yesterday and even better tomorrow. It's an infectious determination that serves his students well in the lab and working in the sciences after Augsburg, as many of his former students prove.

Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I'm Paul Pribbenow, the President of Augsburg University, and it's my great privilege to present the Augsburg podcast, one way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I'm honored to work with every day.

Michael Wentzel: I'm from a small Irish Catholic town in northwest Iowa called Emmetsburg. I mean I always laugh when people say like, like work, how hard work. My, I was like, I don't work hard, my dad works hard. My dad owns a hardware store, True Value hardware store, that's like work. I was growing up, he's there seven days a week, 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. easy, probably every day. That was just kind of the attitude. And then the part of it, I mean part of him was small town. You know, if you're gonna do it, you're gonna do it as best you can.

Irrational confidence I guess, we thought this is what, you know this is what you're supposed to do. Do your best, be the, you know, do as best you can. That was kind of the attitude.

I think um, the biggest thing research will teach you or teach, it teaches students is it teaches them how to fail. And to not be okay with it, but then how you respond to it. Some days, their best is not good enough and they have to realize okay, how are you gonna respond to that? That's one of the things I think sometimes they, that's hard too. It's like, you worked today, and you thought you did the best you could, I need more. It needs to be better.

So you need to have that experience where maybe there's not a clear answer. Especially science students, who are used to a right answer or this will work. That's a skill, to be able to face adversity and not like it, and then how do you respond to it.

One of my first research students was one of those cases where um, she had uh, literally actually been told in high school she wasn't good at chemistry. I don't know how that happened. Transfer student, had come here from the community college, was in organic chemistry doing super, super well. Very shy (laughing), very quiet. I remember I think I pulled her aside in lab one day, I said, "Hey, you know, are you interested in doing chemistry? You're really good." And she's like, "Why?" I'm like, "You're 90s, above 90s in all these tests," like, you know she's like, "I'm not, oh you think I'm good at it?" I was like, "Well, you don't think you're good at it? Look at these numbers." Like she literally, I think she literally said, "No one's ever told me I'm good at something," or, or "I could be good at chemistry." I was like, okay, I mean you know it's just hard for me like I, I just, it was like oh my gosh, really, like well, yeah.

And so then she did research with me. Uh, now I believe is working at Procter and Gamble uh, is employed in the industry. Uh, but just one of those cases where became a chemistry major, just needed somebody, just needed somebody to say, "Hey, you can do this."

I realized from that point on like, it really matters, these little interactions you can have with somebody on an aside in lab, or as you're walking out of class as you hand them a test and say, "Hey, come talk to me," or just write a little note, you know. That really matters.

Another student that I had um, so the student had done research with me, done re- done an, a research for undergraduate experience, on his way to graduate school to get his PhD in chemistry. We're going to the national uh, American Chemical Society conference in San Diego. We're flying in, me and him, because he was pres- he was actually giving a talk, which is a big deal for an undergrad. He had applied and got accepted to give a research talk. And so me and him are flying in together, and we're gonna fly into San Diego. And I may have asked, "Have you been to San Diego before?" And he said, "Well yeah once." And I was like, "Oh, well, when, you know when was that?" And he says, "I was three. My parents had put me into a car and with some people I didn't know, and that's how I got across to the United States."

Right, it's humbling, obviously. Uh, perspective wise, humbling, understanding my own privilege and like, you know just, and I think I talked to him about it later and was like, "You know, you're here now, you're gonna be getting a PhD in chemistry, and you're here at this national conference on this national stage giving this talk. Like you, I mean you real-" I mean I just want to make sure he realized how big a deal and how far that, it's a big deal.

The story's not about me. The first thing I wanted to do was to make sure he understood, you're doing something great here. It made me realize I need to take a step back and make sure we're, to remind the student how impressive they have done and who, and how great they are.

I think some of them don't realize, or they haven't been told, somebody hasn't told you that it's possible for you to do something. When you're the first person that tells them that, that's a big deal. You know I love my students, I lo- and it's just really exciting to see them change and mature. You know most of these students just gotta discover and realize what they're capable of. And just being a part to help them see that or to find out like, oh my gosh I like organic chemistry, like what's going on? So, that's kind of fun, to help them find that, that passion.

Their successes are my successes. And I, I remember, I remember telling students that when they walk, when we walk into conferences. There's a local conference always. In the summer, the local chemistry departments. I always take a moment before we walk in to tell students that you know, I wouldn't take any of those other kids. Before and now, for sure. You're my team. I pick you.

Paul Pribbenow: That was chemistry professor Michael Wentzel. Thanks for listening to the Augsburg podcast. I'm President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit