Story by Scott Stowell
A new thread began a tapestry 55 years ago at the University of St. Thomas. Will Steger showed up for his first day of class. Since then, teachers and students, mentors and friends, institutions and organizations, have woven into that fabric through generations of partnerships.
“The reason I went to St. Thomas was because I wanted a close relationship with my teachers. That really paid off for me,” Steger said.
Having received a master’s degree in education, Steger acknowledges the importance of classroom education. But he favors cultivating relationships outside formal settings. It’s an approach he learned from the teachers who became his mentors. “Mentorship is really the core of my teachings. Educational programs are good. But the most powerful is the one-on-one,” he said.
From teacher to mentor
Steger carried a double major at St. Thomas in biology and geology. He said two professors stepped up at the outset and took him to levels of learning and knowledge beyond classrooms and grades.
The late Jack Brownstein was a first-year geology professor when Steger was a freshman. At the time, geology was so new academically that St. Thomas didn’t offer it as a major. But he said Brownstein helped him discover ways to combine his two passions: the environment and education.
According to Steger, attaining good grades in college wasn’t the least bit easy. The school had high academic standards and he had to learn how to learn. He remembered one test from Brownstein at a time when his grades were getting hammered. As was Brownstein’s custom, he met with students individually after the tests were graded.
“He told me I got the highest mark in the class,” Steger said. “I liked him anyway, but that’s where I really connected.”
Steger said he also appreciated Brownstein’s enthusiasm and how he created peer relationships with students. The two would spend time outside the classroom studying maps, checking out unexplored places and debating global issues. As time progressed, their friendship grew.
“We didn’t hang like friends, but I’d go over to his house and visit and talk about things other than academics,” Steger said.
Rick Meierotto, now 86, was a biology professor at St. Thomas from 1961-1995. He first noticed Steger when Steger was on the St. Thomas wrestling team in a lightweight class. Meierotto was also a St. Thomas wrestler as a student, so he attended matches as a spectator after joining the faculty. He said Steger was very tough for his size.
Meierotto became aware of Steger’s adventurous spirit when Steger took an ecology class he was teaching. He also recalled Steger’s independent research projects and summer junkets to remote locales.
“I can remember him coming in the office and talking about the trip he took during the summer…, an amazing kid. I shouldn’t speak of him as a kid,” he chuckled. “I still couldn’t get over that a 130-something-pound guy… had a vision and a goal, and was sort of addicted to the Arctic kind of climate.”
As Steger’s planning turned toward polar expeditions, Meierotto became even more impressed. “He could do something that was daring and adventurous, but not reckless. He fully intended to return from any trip he took with everybody intact.”
Meierotto also noted how his teacher-student relationship with Steger is an example of how teachers eventually learn more from their students than they teach them. “We went through the evolution of me teaching, then talking as peers, then (me asking), “Gosh, Will, how did you do this or that?”
Partnership for the microgrid
Steger and St. Thomas engineering professor Greg Mowry began a partnership in 2013 when Steger was looking for a power system for the Wilderness Center. Steger described their relationship as one of trust and mutual assistance that benefitted both the Wilderness Center and St. Thomas.
Along with his teaching responsibilities, Mowry has designed and deployed microgrids for humanitarian outreach around the world since 2004. He offers his services for these energy systems at no cost to qualifying agencies, organizations and nonprofits.
Mowry explained that his role was to make certain the microgrid system met Steger’s energy needs. However, since this was a humanitarian project, one of the requirements was to engage students. He said it afforded students not just engineering education, but the realities of getting their hands dirty, digging trenches and pounding nails.
“It’s meant to be a cradle-to-grave kind of learning process on how you show the steps that one actually goes through in designing and deploying a power system,” Mowry said.
Students were also involved in technical discussions with Steger.
“The students are in the meetings because part of these things are about how you listen. (It’s turning) the requirements in the common language that Will might have, into the engineering specifications that are necessary for actually making a power system,” Mowry said. “That’s not done in a text book or class environment.”
He added that the microgrid project also dovetailed with St. Thomas’s mission.
“It’s more than just education. It’s helping individuals and companies succeed,” he said. “Will has needs. We help. Will has guest lectured (for us). It’s very synergistic.”
The Sustainability Club
The St. Thomas Sustainability Club is more than a name derived for its mission. Though the club is in its early years, it’s part of sustaining the relationships that Steger and the university began building over half a century ago. Last April, club members arrived at the Wilderness Center to clear brush, load wood, stack lumber and generally perform any chore that helped the Center.
Maddie Hankard, 21, is a Sustainability Club president. She explained that along with service projects and team-building experiences for members, the club features an educational component complete with guest speakers. Steger has been one of them. But getting to know him on his own turf offered first-hand opportunities to learn about an abundance of lifestyle choices. She used those loads of wood as an example.
“Nothing goes waste. We can apply that to our own lives,” Hankard said. “It’s a little tricky, when you live in a city and live in an apartment with three other roommates, to have a woodshop. But I think (it’s) a good way for us to start conversations with our friends about the kind of lifestyle they can live, and give our members an idea of what their future after college can look like.”
While the club was at the Wilderness Center, Steger spent informal time responding to club member questions. Hankard said talking with him instilled a sense of hope and a deeper sense of urgency to take action for the environment. She emphasized that the setting for their project directly impacted her motivation.
“It’s our generation that’s going to address climate change and that’s going to figure out a way to fix what we’ve been doing to our planet. It’s really important that students get hands-on experiences in a beautiful place like this to remind them why they’re working so hard,” she said.
The group effort
Steger said mentoring and building relations reflects the real mission of the Wilderness Center and he expressed his desire to help. “Being my age, when you get to the top of your field, when you’re mentoring, you can open doors for others because people did that for me.”
However, institutions, organizations and communities are also threads in the tapestry. Steger highlighted how his partnerships with Summit Academy and Dunwoody College of Technology have been integral to the progress of the Wilderness Center. Students from both schools have contributed countless hours of carpentry or architectural skills. In return, they’ve received hands-on experience toward their personal futures.
In January 2008, Steger wrote an article for St. Thomas Magazine, one of the school’s news publications. In it, he addressed the urgency of reducing fossil fuel consumption and emphasized the importance of group partnerships:
“I am confident that if we educate ourselves and reconnect with our communities—whether it be at an institution like St. Thomas, a church, a synagogue or a neighborhood—we can reduce our fossil fuel consumption… I believe that the efforts at St. Thomas are just some of many examples of the ways we can actually practice what we teach.”