Marisa LaPlante is a first-year, first-generation college student, and neither designation has stopped her from jumping into research mere months after landing at the College of Saint Benedict.
As a member of the Emerging Scholars Program, a function of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholars (OURS), LaPlante will be among more than 700 students who will be presenters during Celebrating Scholarship and Creativity Day on April 27 at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s University.
She should be well prepared considering she already made an appearance at an event preceding the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR). While some new students are still acclimating to college life, LaPlante has shown an eagerness to expand her horizons. Early in her first semester, she was selected as an Emerging Scholar, which can be first-year or early transfer students from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education or their field of study. They are paid to complete a 10- to 12-hour per week hands-on research position during their first year, and paired with faculty mentors trained in diversity, equity and inclusion. They participate in community events alongside others in the program.
LaPlante, a communication major from Maple Grove, Minnesota, was matched with Sucharita Mukherjee, Ph.D, a professor of economics, and tasked with research related to women in leadership – a project co-funded by the CSB Fleishhacker Center for Ethical Leadership in Action.
“We were trying to discover what kind of leadership experience people had related to women and compare them,” said LaPlante, who created a 12-question survey and cultivated responses from among more than 40 respondents – both men and women – incentivized by the prospect of a gift-card drawing among participants. “The questions were about what challenges they’d seen, and who inspired them.”
OURS Director Lindsey Gunnerson Gutsch also mentors the annual small cohort of Emerging Scholars, the first class of which launched in 2019 and will graduate in its entirety this spring – each with additional research, leadership, and experiential learning that has helped prepare them for lifelong success. Emerging Scholars have a 95% retention rate for their second year of college.
Gutsch said LaPlante has been especially ambitious, analyzing data and relating it to CSB and SJU as well as her own personal experience. And on April 12, she also took her research on the road to a Quick Pitch competition sponsored by a non-profit organization supporting 11 universities in the University of Wisconsin system. Before the NCUR event kicked off at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, LaPlante had three minutes to impress a panel of judges with her ability to explain the value of that research to society. Almost 100 students – the majority seniors – competed for cash prizes and to secure a spot in the Quick Pitch State Final.
“It was an experience I’d never had before,” LaPlante said. “If I wouldn’t have been so nervous, I feel like I could’ve made it to the finals.”
Regardless, Gutsch and Mukherjee said LaPlante already is on course to be a winner.
“It is incredibly rare to do research as a first-year student, and even more rare to be able to present it to an external audience,” Gutsch said. “Marisa was selected to be part of our program because of her interest in research and desire to be an involved campus leader during her time at CSB. With new college students, we want to harness that ambition by making sure we have support systems and opportunities in place to ensure students can achieve their goals – and that’s exactly what we set out to do with Emerging Scholars: uplift students by engaging them in research that means something to them, surrounded by supportive peers that are like them.”
Mukherjee has been on the faculty at CSB and SJU for 16 years. This is the first time she has mentored an Emerging Scholar and found the student wasn’t the only one to benefit.
“It’s been amazing to see how Marisa has grown from even when we first met,” Mukherjee said. “It has been a very rewarding process to see a student mature and grow over time. I knew she wanted to go to conferences like the one in Eau Claire, and that’s a big thing to be able to go in and speak in front of a bunch of people. And it’s not something she had to do for this project. That was impressive to me because it’s a hard thing to do – condense research that you’ve worked on so much into three minutes. But I know that you get better every time you go through something like this and I’m absolutely confident she’ll get better and better. It will be exciting to see what she can accomplish by the time she is a senior.”
A key recommendation from LaPlante’s research is that women leaders can be cultivated through visibility. She’s living this through her own leadership roles in the First-Gen Organization, which offers opportunities for workshops, mentorship, and bonding at CSB and SJU, and in the Black Student Union. She also receives support from the Intercultural Leadership Education and Development Fellowship Program. As a sophomore, she plans to seek a position at the Experience Hub, perhaps helping mentor Emerging Scholars in the future.
“I’m happy I picked Saint Ben’s because of all these opportunities,” LaPlante said. “Already, the things I’ve done I probably wouldn’t have gotten to do this quickly at another college. The atmosphere here has been great.”
Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s are currently recruiting for the 2023-24 cohort of Emerging Scholars. For more information, contact Lindsey Gunnerson Gutsch at [email protected].