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Unique path has led Fiona Smith to academic and athletic success at CSB

Athletics Student Features

January 11, 2022

By Frank Rajkowski

Like many students, Fiona Smith didn’t arrive at the College of Saint Benedict with a clear idea of which path she wanted to travel academically.

But she said a conversation with her father helped provide her with a roadmap.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, or what I wanted to do with my life,” the sophomore said with a smile. “Kind of the typical crisis every college student comes in with.

“It was my Dad who said ‘You love math. Why don’t you just do Math?’ And I thought ‘What can I do with a math degree besides teach?’ But as I looked into it more, I realized you can do anything.”

And Smith – a standout cross country and track athlete for the Bennies – has just begun to explore those limitless possibilities.

In the summer of 2021, she applied for and got one of three student undergraduate research positions available in the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University math department. That meant spending three months immersing herself in Achromatic vertex distinguishing edge colorings.

Let her explain …

“It’s a mouthful,” Smith said laughing. “It’s kind of hard to explain. But it’s really taking graphs and coloring the edges so you get unique colorings around the vertices. Graph theory can be applied to various different things. Graph theorists call it the future of math because it’s so applicable.

“They use it in chemistry, physics, city planning, mapping, social networking … that kind of stuff. The specific edge colorings that I did are kind of like an optimization problem which can be useful for anything really.

Anne Sinko, chair of the math department at CSB/SJU, was Smith’s supervisor on the project. And she came away very impressed.

“She is an incredibly persistent person and she’s always joyful in what she’s doing,” Sinko said.

“She plunged right in. Summer research lasts 10 weeks and within three, she had done everything we had thought would make up her program. She just ran with it and was willing to try this or try that to see where it all led.

“She knew no graph theory coming in and she ended up being very successful, presenting her findings at a national conference.”

Lindsey Gunnerson Gutsch, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholars at CSB/SJU, said research opportunities like the one Smith received set students up for future career success.

“A research experience allows students to take initiative by generating ideas that expand their existing knowledge and skills,” Gutsch said. “It helps them become good problem solvers and get comfortable facing challenges that they might encounter during a project. They’re becoming innovating thinkers when they propose a new research question that will contribute new knowledge to their field.

“They’re learning how to develop meaningful, strong relationships with faculty mentors who are experts in their fields. And research provides the opportunity for our students to think holistically about how their research connects to other experiences in their lives – like their coursework – and ultimately helps them deepen their understanding in their own field of study while also broadening their own perspectives …which is what we really love to see at liberal arts and sciences institutions like CSB/SJU!

“Beyond those benefits, an undergraduate research project provides students the opportunity to have a hands-on learning experience that is totally unique to them, helping set themselves apart. For example, the research experience and the new knowledge Fiona generated from her project is something that only she can talk about and share with the world, and I think that is something our students should be extremely proud of accomplishing as an undergraduate.”

Growing up global

Big accomplishments are nothing new for Smith, who has been successful in a variety of areas at every step along the unique path that led her to CSB.

The 4.0 student, who is minoring in both computer science and Hispanic studies, is the daughter of Katie and Mike Smith – 1994 graduates of CSB and SJU respectively. Her older brother Connor graduated from SJU in 2020 and her older sister Brigid graduates from CSB this spring.

When Fiona was two, her family moved to Berlin where her father spent two years as the principal of a German-American school. From there, it was on to Saudi Arabia where the family lived for six years while Mike worked as the principal at the Saudi Aramco Expatriate Schools in Dhahran.

They then returned to the U.S. when he took a job as the superintendent of a group of Catholic schools in Fargo, N.D. (including Fargo Shanley High School). But after four years, they returned abroad, living for a year in El Salvador before moving back to Dhahran, where Mike still works as the superintendent of the same school at which he had previously been principal.

Fiona graduated from high school in Dhahran in the spring of 2020.

“There were around 50-plus nationalities in my class,” she said. “It was mostly a school for expats, but there were some Saudi students there as well.

“It was an amazing experience to have friends from everywhere and to be exposed to all these different cultures and religions. Experiences that might seem strange or different to some people were always just super-normal to me.”

Born to run

It was while she was a seventh-grader in Fargo that Smith first took up running – going out for both the cross country and track and field teams.

“We were back in the U.S. in sort of a typical middle school experience and seventh grade is generally when you start sports,” she said. “I decided to give cross country a try. My Dad really encouraged me to give it a shot. Both of my parents run and he thought I’d be pretty good at it.”

Father knew best, as it turned out. Smith made an immediate impact, earning a spot on the varsity team at Fargo Shanley and qualifying for the North Dakota State cross country meet as both a seventh and eighth grader, and the state track and field meet her eighth grade season (her first season in that sport).

She then kept at the sport all through her time in El Salvador and Saudi Arabia.

“My ninth-grade year in El Salvador, I ran for my school, but there weren’t a lot of meets, so I actually ended up running on the national team,” she said. “I can remember running in cross country meets in the coffee plantations.

“In Saudi Arabia, my school had a cross country team. But I mostly ran on a club team. My coach was a former Saudi Olympic runner. He was super-talented and the training was pretty intense.”

Then it was on to CSB where she was unable to compete in cross country as a first-year in the fall of 2020 because the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But she was able to compete in track and field and made an immediate impact, earning All-American honors after finishing fifth overall in the women’s 5,000-meter run at the 2021 NCAA Division III national championship meet.

She continued that momentum during the cross country season last fall, placing fifth overall at the NCAA Division III national meet – the highest finish for a CSB runner at nationals since 1994 and the first All-American finish in the program since 2005.

“She does all the right things,” Bennies cross country and track and field coach Robin Balder-Lanoue said. “I know that sounds silly or trite, but she follows her training every step of the way. She’s very disciplined about getting her workouts done. Even when she is back in Saudi Arabia, and running in 130-degree heat, she makes sure she gets all her miles in.”

“She trains and competes with joy and passion in her heart. I think that’s how she does all the things that make her so great.”

A sense of belonging

Smith said one of the best things about competing in athletics at CSB is the community she has become a part of.

“Walking around campus, people will just come up to me and say ‘you’re that runner, aren’t you,’” she said. “They wish me good luck and stuff like that. I feel like at a bigger school, that would never happen.

“And inside the athletic department, everyone is so great. Before I went to nationals (in cross country last fall) - where it was just going to be my coach and I and not any of my teammates – every other team here made videos and cards for me to let me know they’d be cheering me on. That was really amazing.”

And Smith – who eventually hopes to pursue a master’s degree in cryptography -  said the sense of community extends to the classroom as well.

“The ability you have here to work directly with your professors has really meant a lot to me,” she said. “There are several math professors I can go and talk to any time one-on-one, and I know they’ll help me figure things out.”

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