Senior Stories

September 25, 2022

An environmentalist helps Decorah cars go electric

As gas prices climb, electric vehicles continue to gain the attention of energy-conscious consumers. And thanks in part to the efforts of Charlie Sylvester ’22—an environmental studies major from Lino Lakes, Minn.—using electric-powered vehicles has recently become far more viable for residents of and visitors to Decorah.

Charlie Sylvester '22

During his sophomore year, Sylvester collaborated with two other Luther students on a class project that informed the city of Decorah about different types of electric-vehicle charging stations. This past spring, he built on that research during a self-designed immersion internship with Decorah’s city engineer. Having secured funding for two dual-charge stations from Alliant Energy in 2021, the city of Decorah was seeking guidance on where to install those stations. Using skills honed in his Luther classes and a junior-year sustainability internship with the city of Rochester, Minn., Sylvester helped provide it.

“We researched where they should be located and ended up recommending that both be installed by the Oneota Community Co-op downtown,” he says of the stations, which became operational this summer. “It was so cool to be involved in both the beginning and the end of this project.”

Sylvester credits childhood summers spent at YMCA Camp Menogyn in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota with igniting his passion for sustainability-related causes. “Working closely in a small group in the wilderness taught me resilience, teamwork, and the importance of our relationship with nature,” he recalls.

When it came time to choose a college, his mother—aware of his deep interest in the outdoors and Luther’s deep commitment to environmental sustainability—encouraged him to look at Luther. And as it turned out, Mom knew best.

“Luther taught me that I have a responsibility to others. Luther compelled me to ask lofty questions like what it means to be a human on a changing planet and how to be a thoughtful contributor to society,” Sylvester reflects, crediting his many Luther-related experiences, including his leadership role in the ECO student organization. “I have loved being pushed to be a better, more engaged person in our world these past four years.”

After graduating this May, Sylvester once again returned to Camp Menogyn, this time as a counselor, to pass on the same life lessons he learned there years ago—lessons of acceptance and resilience, of teamwork and determination. He then headed to Norway to kick off a stint with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a network of organic farms across the world that provide food and shelter in exchange for work.

“It’s an affordable way to travel that will allow me to connect with the land and with people from across the world,” he says. “I hope this experience will help me further explore my interests and more deeply understand what I want to do with my life.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam

A legacy student fosters inclusivity

Maya Mukamuri ’22 is something beyond a third-generation Luther student—her parents (Ndambakuwa ’94 and Amy [Larson] Mukamuri ’90) and one grandfather (Godfrey Mukamuri ’74) are alumni, while her other grandfather (emeritus professor of theatre Bob Larson) taught here for 48 years. “Luther’s always been a part of me,” she says.

Maya Mukamuri '22

“Being a legacy was a huge part of my experience,” she continues. “I didn’t realize how much it would impact me until probably the end of my first year.” Mukamuri felt pressure to connect with her family legacy but was also eager to forge her own path. It turns out that she found a middle way.

After a rough first year in which she questioned whether Luther was really a fit for her, Mukamuri started to find community, largely through the music program and the Black Student Union (BSU).

“Navigating my racial identity has been so complex my whole life,” Mukamuri says. “And being a Luther legacy and being a biracial Black woman along with that is something I’ve really had to learn to balance and understand. With the BSU, I always felt a home where I could express my Blackness and be comfortable in my identity and who I am.”

Mukamuri held several leadership roles in BSU, and her experience there also shaped her future career goals: to earn a major in sociology and a minor in identity studies and to work in a helping profession. “Realizing everything my BSU friends and I were going through as Luther students at a predominately white institution—hearing their experiences of prejudice and discrimination—really motivated me to want to do something to benefit us,” she says.

While Mukamuri’s dad was also involved in BSU as a student, music was another Luther cornerstone for Mukamuri that she didn’t share with either parent. She was a three-year member of both Nordic Choir and a cappella group Beautiful Mess, and she sang for jazz worship services at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Decorah.

Mukamuri describes Beautiful Mess as “like a sisterhood that I can’t really even put into words because it’s just so special. The girls in the group have created such a family for me, and I just know if I need anything I can text our group chat and one of them would run to me immediately.”

Her early experience with Nordic was a bit more of an adjustment. “It was hard to feel like we belonged as sophomores because we were brand-new to the choir, and that community had already been built among the upperclassmen,” she explains. But she’d wanted to sing for Nordic since she was 16, so “It was a case where I wanted it so bad that I knew I had to find that community,” she says.

One of the goals of many seniors in the choir this past year—with the help of one of Mukamuri’s favorite professors, Andrew Last ’97—was to make sure all the new members felt really welcome. “Knowing that I did my best to include people in whatever ways I could? I’m very proud of that,” she says.

Mukamuri is on track to continue her trajectory of helping people feel seen and valued. In July, she was juggling four job offers mostly within client services and mental and behavioral health. She plans to attend grad school within the next year to pursue a career in therapy or mental health awareness.

—Kate Frentzel

A title-winning champion stays the course

Matt Benson ’22 of Park Rapids, Minn., has never shied away from a challenge.

Matt Benson '22

Competing for the Norse men’s track-and-field team last spring, he opted to train for not one but technically 10 events as he took on the decathlon despite the fact that he had never even tried five of the individual events that compose it. “I had always wanted to try the decathlon,” Benson says with a grin. “I ended up having a great time and even won one of the events.”

That same competitive spirit manifested itself in the pool last winter when Benson, a two-year captain of the Luther men’s swimming and diving team, contributed to two relay victories at the American Rivers Conference championships and claimed individual conference titles in the 400-yard medley and a very memorable 500-yard freestyle event that found him trailing by more than an entire lap halfway into the race. Whereas others might panic, Benson kept his cool. “I just stuck to my strategy and my pace and found my stride at the end,” he says. “I guess the moral of the story is ‘stay the course.’”

And that’s exactly what Benson, a biology major and chemistry minor, did during his four years at Luther, focusing on the sciences from the start.

“That was one driving force for coming here—being able to swim competitively was the other—because I knew that Luther had a strong biology program, and I knew that I would be well prepared if I did decide to apply to medical school,” he says.

Most college students would likely consider taking a pre-med slate of classes and participating on not one but two varsity teams more than enough, but Benson made room for plenty more on his proverbial plate while at Luther. He served on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), participated in the Alpha Phi Omega (APO) co-ed service fraternity, and took part in the PALS youth mentorship program, all while maintaining grades that earned him induction into the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society. How did he manage it all? “Believe it or not, I didn’t pull a single all-nighter,” Benson says. “Being so involved on campus really helped me manage my time.”

His well-honed time-management skills will undoubtedly come in handy at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, where Benson began classes this August. Building on healthcare experience gained working as a CNA for the last three summers, he envisions a future as either a general surgeon or a family practice physician—he has job-shadowed doctors in both specialties—and hopes eventually to set up practice in a small rural community.

“The paramount thing for me is to form one-on-one connections in my profession,” he says. “My time at Luther—forging such tight connections with my teammates, my classmates, and my professors—drove home how important that is to me.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam

A problem-solver spreads his wings

Growing up in Paraguay, Gabriel Palacios ’22 rocked the math-competition circuit. He started competing in fourth grade. By fifth grade, he made the National Olympiad of Paraguay. By sixth grade? He won it. The next year he participated in the physics equivalent. He won that too.

Gabriel Palacios '22

“I saw that the common ground was problem solving, not really math or physics,” he says. With this self-knowledge in tow, Gabriel set off for United World College of South East Asia in Singapore, where he continued solving problems. “But this time,” he says, “I learned and used high-level programming languages to solve problems.” Thus began his love of computer science.

At Luther, Palacios really leveraged opportunities to explore computer science through internships. In spring of 2021, he interned at Mayo Clinic’s Biomedical Imaging Resource Core, where he developed a proof-of-concept web application to anonymize and transfer patient records to a centralized database.

The following summer, Palacios interned in a totally different field, this time at Visa, reworking an internal testing platform of their Click-to-Pay feature to improve the user interface and add new capabilities.

“I had to learn new languages and processes and also how to work with a team of engineers. That was my first exposure to collaborative coding. I had to get feedback from a code, and I had to provide feedback for a code that wasn’t mine,” he says.

Palacios’s third and final internship was a nine-month position as an engineering co-op member at Zendesk Inc., which builds custom software focused on customer relations. “What Zendesk does differently is that instead of providing an internship project, you work as any other engineer. So you pick up real projects for your work,” Gabriel says.

Through his internships, Palacios says, “I learned how flexible my major is. I can just go into a medical field, learn the basics, and apply everything that I know about computer science there. The next day, I can go into a sales team and do the same. So I’m into that idea that I don’t just have to go into a tech company—I can go in many other directions.”

But Palacios’s impressive intellect and experience got him noticed by a tech company—namely Google, which recruited him for the Cloud Technical Residency, a program that includes rotations in technical, client- facing, and leadership roles to determine best fit for a longer-term position there.

While Palacios immersed himself in his computer science major and data science minor at Luther, he also found time for fun. A lifelong folk dancer, he participated in Luther’s Ballroom and Swing Club all four years—and even won the 2022 Dancing with the Luther Stars competition (professor Jodi Enos-Berlage was his partner). Last summer, before starting his Google residency this fall, he traveled to Europe with friends to add to his visited-countries list, which now tops 23!

How long that list will be a few years from now is impossible to tell. With a flexible skill set and problem-solver’s intellect, Palacios should be able to write his own ticket for wherever he sets his sights next.

—Kate Frentzel

A campus leader builds community during pandemic

Erin Keller ’22 has a knack for bringing people together.

“One of my favorite things to do is meet new people and hang out with friends,” she says.

Erin Keller '22

So when she and her fellow Luther students returned to campus at the height of the pandemic in the fall of 2020, this Racine, Wis., native immediately set about combining her leadership role within the Luther Student Activities Council (SAC) and her ability to think outside the box to restore the sense of campus community that Covid-19 had splintered.

“We couldn’t have concerts or large gatherings,” she recalls. “We were spending so much time in our rooms that I knew it was important to have activities that could bring us together, even if it wasn’t in person.”

Enter virtual bingo, virtual trivia, virtual escape rooms, and virtual paint-and-sip parties, the latter complete with prepackaged paint kits, mocktails, and step-by-step painting instructions provided (virtually, of course!) by a professional artist. “The events were very well attended, and I think they did help students cope with the challenges of Covid and all the changing campus policies around the pandemic,” says Keller. “They provided creative ways to get together when there weren’t many opportunities to do that on campus.”

Those efforts didn’t go unnoticed.

“Erin did outstanding work at Luther to build community in multiple leadership roles, including as president of SAC and vice president of Outreach Ministries,” says Jake Dyer, Luther assistant dean and coordinator of new student initiatives. “She stepped up in uncertain times and found new ways to help her peers build community and engage with each other despite the constraints of the pandemic.”

Keller explored uncharted territory in her academics as well, becoming one of the first Luther students to graduate with a major in visual communication. (The major was launched during her time on campus.)

“Visual communication immediately appealed to me because I have always loved doing creative things,” says Keller, whose previous creative endeavors include serving as head editor of her high school yearbook. “It combined so many disciplines in which I had an interest–like video editing, graphic design, computer science, photography, and marketing–and helped me develop a solid skill set.”

It didn’t take Keller long to put her newly acquired skills to work. After graduating last spring, she returned to Lutherdale Bible Camp in Elkhorn, Wis.—where she had helped run a giving campaign in September 2020—to take on the role of media and marketing specialist. She’s due to wrap up her work there by fall and ultimately hopes to return to Decorah, a place she says feels like home.

“I built so many relationships, learned and grew a ton, and made many great memories at Luther and in Decorah,” she reflects. “I honestly don’t think it’s time for me to leave this place for good quite yet.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam