Ivan Lorentzen, psychology instructor at Flathead Valley Community College, was surprised recently to receive a letter from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His surprise turned to pure pleasure when he read that he had been named an “especially influential” teacher in the development of MIT student Molly Schmidt.
Lorentzen and most others who knew Schmidt as a student would not soon forget her.
She made local headlines in her final high school semester by earning a perfect score on her ACT test.
“She was just a terrific young lady,” Lorentzen said.
As a student at Whitefish High School, she carried a 4.0 GPA while also taking enough Running Start courses to graduate from the community college with an associate degree in neuroscience in May 2012 — before graduating from high school a month later.
Schmidt, the daughter of Carl and Annette Schmidt of Whitefish, first came to MIT’s attention with her a high score on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test in her junior year of high school. She applied and was accepted to MIT before starting her senior year.
“I literally cried tears of joy for the first time in my life,” Schmidt wrote in a letter of thanks for financial support on the MIT Class of 1959’s website.
In the same letter, she described how Lorentzen’s Fundamentals of Biological Psychology class influenced her decision to pursue neuroscience. Schmidt said the class was all about how the brain works, what goes wrong with it and why.
Her enthusiasm bubbles off the page, providing insight into how Lorentzen grabbed her attention, inspired her and changed her life:
“It was fun to go to every day, I loved my professor, I came home with fun facts to share with my family and friends every day, and we got to dissect sheep brains! It was really fun to learn about what makes us function.”
Schmidt’s goals — finding better treatments and cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s — would make any teacher proud.
Lorentzen, with 42 years as an educator, agreed that hearing such feedback keeps him fired up about teaching.
“It’s a very rewarding experience to know, somehow, that you made a positive contribution to someone’s future,” he said. “You just never know. Sometimes, the students I pick out as having real potential don’t end up going the direction I had anticipated. There’s always a sleeper out there. You just never know who is going to catch on, take off and run with what they’ve got.”
He recalled Schmidt as a studious, focused young woman who sat in the front row. Lorentzen described her as curious and competent.
“She was clearly academically at the top of the class,” he said. “She was more reserved.”
Lorentzen said he had no idea Schmidt was a high school student when the class started. As a junior, she would have been about 16.
“We have no way of knowing backgrounds of students when they register, so I did not know she was a high school student until well past the middle of the semester,” he said.
Lorentzen said Schmidt remained a top performer in class. From her papers and her tests, he could tell that she understood everything.
He said it wasn’t that everything came easily for her. She worked hard and remained completely engaged in learning.
“She was just plugged in. She was there,” he said. “It was fun.”
He called the letter from MIT “such a nice thing to do.” Lorentzen said Flathead Valley Community College should look at asking incoming students if a teacher has been influential in their lives and then let the teacher know.
The MIT letter congratulated Lorentzen and thanked him for the time, patience, expertise, love, discipline and all the other qualities which have had such an important impact on his students.
“It’s real easy for teachers and other people who influence students to lose track and not really recognize contributions that they do make,” Lorentzen said. “That was very nice feedback to get.”
Lorentzen said he may teach for just a couple more years before he looks seriously at retiring.
“You can’t do this forever,” he said. “There are bright, shining faces looking to move into this position, I’m sure.”
Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.