Expanding research, cultivating vocation
by Nathaniel Miller
Verónica Contreras-Shannon, Ph.D., learned she received tenure at St. Mary’s University on June 1, 2012 — the same day Thomas M. Mengler, J.D., started as the University’s president.
The Professor of Biological Sciences said she had a brief conversation with Mengler that day, joking that because his signature was on the paper, he was responsible for her promotion.
“It’s kind of exciting to think about it,” Contreras-Shannon said. “I figured from that moment on I would fly under the radar, and he wouldn’t remember who I was.”
Flying under the radar, though, is something Contreras-Shannon has not done.
Awarded a $2.1 million grant in May from the National Institutes of Health, Contreras-Shannon serves as Director for the Undergraduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (U-RISE). The grant builds the pool of students interested in research careers by exposing them to research in STEM fields.
Through grants like this one and a realigned career services office, the University’s faculty and staff continuously look to improve the college experience, give hands-on learning opportunities and pinpoint a vocation that aligns with students’ passions.
Knowing how important each dollar is to funding programs, Contreras-Shannon said she put herself under a lot of pressure during the application process. However, support from the president’s office and her dean encouraged her to apply for the U-RISE grant opportunity.
“There have been times when I didn’t think I could have done something without knowing President Mengler supported our goals,” Contreras-Shannon said. “Because of that, we were able to go out and find ways to help our students.”
Supporting the process
Since Mengler became president, St. Mary’s has been awarded more than $37 million in grants, according to the Office of Sponsored Projects, Academic Research and Compliance.
In the 2022-2023 academic year, faculty across St. Mary’s submitted 33 grant applications with a success rate of 64.5%, far surpassing the University’s average 40% success rate.
Verónica Contreras-Shannon, Ph.D.
“There have been times when I didn’t think I could have done something without knowing President Mengler supported our goals. Because of that, we were able to go out and find ways to help our students.”
Having never applied for a grant before, Smith said Mengler was instrumental in helping her craft her application.
By asking detailed questions about how the money would assist students and advance the University’s mission, Mengler’s feedback was focused, respectful and eye-opening, Smith said.
“When I think about what Tom has contributed in terms of the research and the grant experience here at St. Mary’s, it’s providing faculty that space to explore ideas and a chance to try new things,” she said.
Finding the why in your career
Preparing students for their careers extends beyond the classroom.
At the Career and Professional Development Center, revamped in Fall 2021, students receive assistance with career coaching, internship opportunities and résumé tips.
During the 2022-2023 academic year, the Center reported more than 700 one-on-one career coaching appointments and more than 300 appointments to build a network between students and alumni.
Stephanie Ward, Ph.D., Vice Provost for Student Success and Vocation, has led the Center since 2021. She aims to help students find opportunities that sync with their life goals.
“Finding a student’s purpose aligns with the Marianist mission of the University,” Ward said. “Our staff is here to educate and equip students to have meaningful lives and purpose in the world and to contribute to the common good.”
In leading the Center, Ward works closely with Mengler and Jason Pierce, Ph.D., Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs. When presenting ideas to leadership about the Center’s goals, Ward said Mengler helped her explore all angles. His leadership style, she added, is one of open-mindedness, honesty and trust.
“Tom has shown me that a thoughtful leader is open to the innovative ideas of the people you work with, but is also firm in his or her own beliefs and direction,” Ward said. “What I take away is that good leadership is not always having the answers, but being able to listen and discern if what you’re hearing could be the answer.”
Enabling the leaders of tomorrow
Knowing Mengler was dean of a law school before coming to St. Mary’s, Emke walked into his office and requested a meeting. To her surprise, he set one up for later that week and had a 30-minute conversation with her.
That initial interaction was enough for Emke to want to learn more about Mengler’s leadership style and solidified her decision to apply to the President’s Ambassadors. President’s Ambassadors are students who volunteer their time and personable attributes toward serving and promoting St. Mary’s University alongside the Office of the President.
“That meeting made me want to work with President Mengler more so I could try to be the same type of leader,” she said.
Since joining the program in her sophomore year, Emke said working with Mengler and his wife, Mona Mengler, has allowed her to gain proficiency in new areas and be involved in events she may not have attended otherwise.
In stepping out of her comfort zone, Emke also worked on soft skills —communication, time management, adaptability and teamwork — which can be taken with her into her career.
Being able to network with St. Mary’s alumni has helped her become more confident in interacting with new people. Because of this, Emke said she now feels comfortable giving an elevator pitch, which is a quick, persuasive speech lasting about 30 seconds or less.
Stephanie Ward, Ph.D.
“Finding a student’s purpose aligns with the Marianist mission of the University. Our staff is here to educate and equip students to have meaningful lives and purpose in the world and to contribute to the common good.”
These skills helped her obtain an internship at a local law office during her sophomore year. There, Emke learned about different law processes and developed a desire to practice constitutional law.
“St. Mary’s is a home away from home, but it’s the type of home where you can build a network of faith, friends, family and career connections,” she said. “St. Mary’s has given me the support and confidence to do my best.”