Campus Conversations: Women of Mendoza
By Maura Boston ‘17 and Jessie Wurzer ‘17
Meet Economics Professor Kristen Collett-Schmitt and Communication Professor Amanda McKendree. Read about choosing teaching over tenure, helping low-income students become financially literate, balancing work and family, the importance of being your own advocate, and more. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
First, meet Professor Kristen Collett-Schmitt - Director of Special Projects; Associate Teaching Professor
Tell us your story.
I was born and raised in Park Hills, Kentucky in a traditional Catholic household. I was set to go to law school upon graduation from Bellarmine University, a small liberal arts Catholic college, but when it was time to really think about what I wanted to do after school, I realized that I loved helping students.
I started tutoring and teaching as an Econ and Sociology major, abandoned all my plans to go to law school, and decided to apply for PhD programs in economics. I was valedictorian in high school and college, so when I graduated college without any plans, everyone - including me! - was shocked and surprised. Fortunately, about a month after graduation, I was granted a full scholarship to NC State.
I married my high school sweetheart in 2006 during my third year of graduate school. This is my eleventh academic year and I continue to do what I love, teaching economics. Notre Dame is now a critical part of our lives as a family.
You serve as the faculty advisor for a student organization called MoneyThink. Can you tell us a bit about that?
MoneyThink was developed by a student four years ago who was really passionate about financial literacy; he asked me to be the advisor because he recognized my passion for making economics applicable to my students.
The organization teaches South Bend high school students about things like balancing a checkbook or using a credit card to help them become financially literate by the time they graduate high school. Few low income students in the community have access to that curriculum and schools don’t have the resources to provide that education. The ND students from all majors have the opportunity to mentor these high school students.
Can you tell us about your family’s non-profit organization “Wishes for Preemies”?
When my daughter was born in 2010, she was actually an identical twin. I found out seven weeks before my due date that Harper’s twin Mackenzie didn’t have a heartbeat. Harper was born prematurely and had to spend time about 16 days in the hospital before we brought her home. She weighed four pounds. We had a few pieces of preemie sized clothing, but even for a four pounder they were huge on her. The nurses ended up buying her clothes to accommodate the wires being used to help her.
When Harper came home, we spent time grieving the loss of Mackenzie and how difficult Harper’s life had begun. We looked for a way to channel our grief and decided to organize a donation process to order the types of clothes preemies need in the hospital. We coordinate with friends and families to collect donations. It’s been a really good way for Harper to stay in touch with her sister, the hospital, and the nurses that helped her.
What is the most difficult sacrifice you have made during your career?
I think the word “sacrifice” has a negative connotation, but what I am about to describe as sacrifices have certainly been positive parts of my life. However, in econ 101 we learn that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” so in many ways, anything worthwhile in our lives has a cost.
One sacrifice I have made has been to be a teacher. In economics, the teaching aspect of the professoriate is less valued than the research aspect. So, when I realized that teaching and pedagogical research was my passion, I effectively had to give up the opportunity of tenure. The amount of teaching that I do – the amount of teaching that I choose to do and want to do – does not allow me to dedicate necessary time to the type of research that is most valued in my profession. So I end up sacrificing the ultimate prize of tenure.
The other sacrifice I have made is to be a working mother. With a new baby due in February and the logistics of teaching a semester-long class, I will be on maternity leave for the entire spring semester. While this seems glorious –no grading or office hours for five months! – teaching is a joy to me and it’s what I am evaluated on when being considered for promotion. For a woman in the Academy who chooses to have children, her career is effectively put on hold and/or delayed due to the birth of a child. Men do not have to make that tradeoff.
What advice do you have for women interested in business and economics?
It is crucial for women to realize there are no longer pre-existing “rules” for women in business and economics. It is important for women to enter their profession feeling free of limitations and assumptions about what their societal roles must be. While I can’t honestly say that my options were never limited because I am female, I can say that I benefited from simply being confident in my ability to do everything that my male counterparts can do.
Women in business and economics should also trust themselves. There is a lot of existing advice out there for women – “lean in,” for example – but I caution women in business and economics to not blindly follow such advice. Instead, they should rely on what feels appropriate, safe, and successful based on their specific environment.
Now meet Professor Amanda McKendree, Arthur F. and Mary J. O’Neil Director of the Fanning Center for Business Communication, Associate Teaching Professor
Tell us your story
I think one of the most surprising elements of my story, since I am a communications professor, is that I came from a small town in Pennsylvania with parents who had a vocabulary and communications style all their own - I grew up saying “crick” instead of “creek.” When I think about that, I’m just really humbled to have the position that I have and to work with the students and great faculty here on campus.
My small town roots are still an important part of my life and they definitely influence my communication choices and what I’m doing now. When I graduated from grad school at Duquesne University, a Catholic university, I felt Notre Dame aligned with the mission and vision of what I was used to at Duquesne. I started in August of 2009. I had never been to campus before, but I did have some conversations with the ND softball coach when I was in high school. I had ended up getting a letter inviting me to try out once I got to campus, but there was no scholarship available. I had forgotten about that letter until two years ago when I found it going through some papers. I think I was meant to come here to ND, but just in a different role!
Even though you are so well-versed in communication, are there any areas in your own life where you struggle to follow your own advice or expertise?
In the classroom, I’m expected to be the expert and to have the answers, but in communication there's often not a right or wrong answer. So I definitely do struggle following my own advice in interpersonal and professional relationships. I approach my working relationships through a point of humility and learning rather than trying to have all the answers.
As a more personal example, after my father passed away, I thought as a communication expert I should have the skills to talk about it and be a resource to my family, but I just couldn’t come up with it. I was at a loss for what to say. The weightiness of the topic left me unable to communicate what I was feeling, what I needed in any given moment, or what I could do to support other family members. Part of it is maybe I have higher expectations for myself - I think I should be able to figure it out and should know what to say in every situation that I encounter. There are just moments that are really difficult, weigh on you emotionally, and make it difficult for you to be successful in communication.
What has been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced in your professional career?
I think a lot about managing personal and professional responsibilities. I have a great mentor on campus in the psychology department. She told me that you’ll never be able to do everything, so she separates everything out into “buckets.” Whenever she recognizes that one of the buckets is getting low, whether it be her research, her teaching, or her personal responsibilities, that's a trigger for her to make more of an increased effort in that area of her life. I, of course, start to think about what happens if you have too many buckets, so I’ll have to follow up about what happens then.
Taking over as the director of the Fanning Center for Business Communication in January of 2018 requires me to put a lot more effort into my professional bucket, which means I have to sacrifice somewhere else. I’m really attentive to trying to manage that.
Can you talk a bit about your work in advocacy communications?
I have to credit my colleague at Seton Hill for giving me the term “advocacy communications.” A few years ago my Dad was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). It’s a pretty rare disease that’s rarely talked about, and it’s complicated and confusing to explain because it looks a lot like other types of illness such as Parkinson's or ALS.
When we were grasping with his diagnosis I thought about what we could do. While there are really no known causes, treatments, or cures for PSP, we could still inform people about what ailments to look out for in their loved ones and we could motivate others to mobilize and care about the disease.
I interpret advocacy communications to be about educating, motivating, and mobilizing. To that end, we held a softball tournament in August 2017 to raise funds. This year we partnered with the Pittsburgh Pirates to do a “strikeout PSP” event at the ballpark. I really struggled with writing the initial letter to potential donors because I wondered how personal the letter should be. It wasn’t until I did my lesson on persuasive writing with my MBA students that I felt like I knew what to do. Going through the content with them and talking to them about their own work experiences gave me the final push to finish that letter.
How can women can use communication to become leaders and excel in their field?
I read a Forbes article about the things you can control versus the things you can’t control regarding others and the impression they hold of you. Communication is one of those things you can control and that can really influence your ability to be successful and to progress in your career. We all tend to think we’ll just keep our heads down and do our work to the best of our ability, but that’s really not enough. You have to make others aware of the good work that you’re doing. As the head of the Fanning Center now, I feel an added responsibility to communicate the good work that my faculty members are doing.
Another connected issue is making sure you identify the mentors who can guide and promote you, and who can speak to your skills and abilities. It's often not enough for you to say how skilled you are on your own. You need to develop a network of people that are working on your behalf as well.
Thank you Professors Collett-Schmitt and McKendree for taking the time to share your experiences with us and for your dedicated service to students!
As we continue our campus conversations, we encourage you to tell us who we should talk to. Do you know a woman on campus who has a story to tell? She can be a professor or pianist, coach or chemist, rectress or rower, administrator or athlete. We hope you'll help us seek out more Notre Dame women who can share a bit about their lives, so we can all continue to learn from each other. Click here to make a suggestion.