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Student speaker follows great-grandma to St. Kate’s

Graduating senior Elizabeth Bernhardt will speak at the 2011 Baccalaureate Commencement.
Graduating senior Elizabeth Bernhardt will speak at the 2011 Baccalaureate Commencement.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Bernhardt '11

On May 22, Elizabeth Bernhardt ’11 will receive her Bachelor of Arts degree in physics at St. Catherine University’s spring commencement. She will also speak on behalf of the graduating seniors at the ceremony, touching on the life lessons she’s learned at St. Kate’s.

Bernhardt was chosen for this honor in March by a joint faculty, staff and student committee — based on high academic achievement, leadership and community involvement.

“When I leave St. Kate’s, I will definitely miss the community,” says Bernhardt, from Sauk Rapids, Minn. “The St. Kate's community is unique; in that every person pushes me to be my best, supports me despite my flaws and challenges me to question the way I see myself and the world.”

Bernhardt’s great-grandmother, Gertrude (Green) Bernhardt was among St. Kate’s first 1,000 graduates. In 1930, she completed the nursing program at St. Joseph's Hospital, which formed the foundation of St. Catherine University’s highly respected programs in nursing today.

“I wanted to be a nurse like her,” says Bernhardt, of her great-grandma who died at 91 when she was in 6th grade. “I had done a lot of preparation in high school to help me get into St. Kate’s nursing program. But then I changed my mind halfway through the first semester.”

It was a combination of highly competitive nursing scholarships and her growing love of calculus that made her switch majors.

“There are more scholarships out there for women majoring in physics because there are still relatively few women in the field,” she says.

Representing academic excellence

Bernhardt, who will wear her great-grandma’s college pin at graduation, earned multiple honors during her four years at St. Kate’s. They include the Freshman Academic All-Star Award, Sister Seraphim Gibbons Mathematics Scholarship, Minnesota Space Grant and the National Science Foundation scholarship in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Earlier this month, Bernhardt was inducted into the Gamma Chapter of the national academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa. She is also a member of Phi Mu Epsilon, the mathematics honors society — and has served as president for St. Kate's Engineering Club, Theology Club and Global Learning Organization.

In 2008, Bernhardt became a research assistant in the University's physics program and a student assistant in the theology department. The following year, she added two roles to her already busy life: physics and mathematics tutor in the mathematics department and physics point person for St. Kate’s annual Girls Science Saturday program.

Bernhardt spent two valuable summers away from the Twin Cities to enhance her research skills. She earned scholarships to work on projects at the physics departments of Indiana University in 2010 and Washington State University (WSU) at Pullman in 2009.

“Being a woman and coming from a woman’s college means I will always be able to bring a different perspective to research and to my profession in general,” she says.

Star student heads west

This fall, Bernhardt is heading to WSU to pursue a Ph.D. in physics. She recently landed a Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need Fellowship, which will provide her with up to $30,000 for the first year of graduate study.

“It's a lot of money without a lot of work, so I am very excited,” she says.

When asked to share one lesson she's learned from St. Kate’s, Bernhardt replies: “If you want something, pursue it with everything you’ve got and don’t be afraid to ask for it.”

May 16, 2011 by Pauline Oo

See also: Leadership, STEM, Students