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Faculty and staff are ‘all in’ for every student

March 3, 2023

School of Ed Stories

Alex Zuzek B’18, M’22 wasn’t sure, at first, that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his older sisters and study education at Saint Mary’s. 

But he’s glad he did. And by the time he was ready to enroll in an M.Ed program — largely because of his meaningful undergraduate experience and the university’s quality reputation — Zuzek said, he “didn’t really even think twice about going back to Saint Mary’s.” 

Zuzek was first introduced to the university as a ninth grader, while touring with his sisters, Katie (Zuzek) Nye B’14, M’17 and Abbie (Zuzek) Budin B’15. When it was his turn to look at undergraduate schools, Zuzek was hesitant to automatically go where they did.

“But then I Iooked back and decided I liked the setting in Winona and the bluffs, and I knew I wanted to be a teacher. My dad was a principal, so he knows quite a bit about different schools, and he thought Saint Mary’s was a really strong one.” The combination, he said, “kind of made it the perfect place for me.”

Zuzek, in turn, became grateful for the early introductions to the department. “I do feel like I was lucky having sisters who were both studying to be teachers, too,” he said. “I met the Sorvaags and another education professor so I knew them ahead of time. We all ended up teaching in different areas. One sister and my wife, Aleaha (Zabel B’18), are elementary teachers, and my middle sister studied  K-12 music. We could talk to each other about what to expect from certain teachers, but not so much detail that you had this full concept.”

Zuzek quickly settled on studying social studies secondary education, with a goal of being both a teacher and a tennis coach, and he was soon creating his own path in education — one encouraged by supportive faculty.

“I was able to learn so much from them,” he said. “It felt like another level of connection in the sense that when you would see them around campus, it wasn’t just a passing ‘Hi, how’s it going?’ It was more meaningful. I also remember (faculty) coming to different events, and some of the education faculty hosted a kickball game at their house. It might sound hokey, but to me that’s the good stuff, that’s what makes it. 

“It’s really important in education to model what it can look like, as far as being a mentor and teacher. At the undergrad campus, it felt like faculty would have met any need that you had. If you needed a re-explanation or an extension, it was at your fingertips, at your disposal; it was fantastic. If you go to a bigger school, that’s not going to happen there.”

Now, Zuzek said he, his sisters, and his wife reminisce about the professors who had such a positive impact on them personally and professionally. 

At the graduate level, though his experiences have been quite different — especially because he was in the first fully virtual M.Ed. community — he found the same close connections with faculty.

“The master’s programs are popular in the Twin Cities, especially among teachers,” he said. “To already know their educational philosophy and beliefs was huge. It gives me a sense of cohesion between my degrees. I have just loved that cohesive piece and how personal it is.”

Zuzek, who graduates this June, points out he’s been able to earn his degree while working full time at Hastings High School and raising a family.

“My wife and I had our first child, Arthur ‘Archie,’ a year ago in April, so out of the 15-16 month program, for a year of it, I also had a young child,” he said. “But the way faculty laid it all out still made it all doable. They make it so clear what’s expected.

“A master’s is more difficult in the sense that the standard of work is higher and also because you have a job while doing it,” he added. “In both the master’s program and in my undergrad studies, I’ve been very fortunate to have teachers, facilitators, and mentors who truly care and know you.”

Zuzek is applying what he’s learned back to his alma mater in Hastings, where he teaches social studies (and where his dad was once principal). Previously, he had served as a long term sub in Farmington, Minn. And, he’s also a tennis coach at Hastings High School.

“I would say I hope to stay connected with Saint Mary’s faculty and facilitators at some level,” he said. “It’s been a really impactful thing for me.”