From the Open Range of Montana to Cal State Fullerton

Vonna Hammerschmidt has Found Satisfaction in Helping Students

January 7, 2008

By Russ Hudson

When Vonna Hammerschmitt has the chance, she likes to vaccinate calves, doctor sick cows and watch deer and elk. What is she doing here at a major university?

Your guess is likely to be wrong. Hammerschmitt, director of the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program (MESA) since 1986, is helping guide young people — much like she did as a teacher, first in Montana, then inner-city Los Angles and Huntington Beach. Her winding path to Cal State Fullerton started in Montana, where the seeds to helping young people select future careers all began.

Q: What keeps you getting up in the morning?

A: My job is very fulfilling. Every day I help a student plan a path to college and help her or him navigate that path. My job is the best of being a teacher without all the discipline problems, the best of being an administrator without all the discipline problems — and I have a great time doing it.

Q: What do you remember about your first day at Cal State Fullerton, and how is it different now?

A: When I came to CSUF I wasn't really sure what my job entailed and I was very much in awe of higher ed. Now I am the person who gets the calls from other MESA directors because I am the "veteran."

Q: If you couldn’t do the job you’re doing now, what would you do?

A: I would be back in the classroom. I have always liked working with young people. I started out teaching Sunday school when I was in high school, and that was the beginning of my love for teaching.

Q: What is the most valuable thing you have learned in your life and your personal goal?

A: You never know everything. There was a time when I thought I was God's gift to pedagogy — but I soon learned that wasn't so.
My personal goal in life is to know that I will leave the world a bit better than I found it. I believe I have done that through my work with MESA.

But there was a ‘before MESA’ in my life, too. When I was teaching second grade in L.A., I had a student who had just come from Mexico. He spoke little to no English, was very shy and seemed to be very lost. I took a special interest in him and helped him to learn English. He in turn, helped me to learn Spanish. I bought him a Spanish-English dictionary and continued to help him with English and with his homework as he moved through the grades.

When he was in sixth grade I left that school and began teaching in Orange County. I lost track of him, but often wondered what had happened to him. One December day 10 years later, I received a package via UPS. It had no return address and I had no idea who had sent it. Inside was a box of candy and a note that said, "Thank you for everything." It was signed “Roberto.” I called UPS and was finally able to get the address of the sender. I sent him a thank-you note and received a reply. He was in college studying to be a teacher, and working as an aide in the elementary school he had attended. From this I learned that you never know when, how or what will make a difference in a person's life.


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