Opportunity knocks, engineering grad answers…and keeps the door wide open

BreeAnn Schmidt
Degree: Bachelor of Science in Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering, College of Engineering & Applied Science
Hometown: Brillion, Wis.
It’s a fact:  She is a certified scuba diver and once traveled to Australia, where she spent time diving the Great Barrier Reef.

When she was asked to join the only all-female High Mileage Vehicle Challenge team in the state high school competition, BreeAnn Schmidt discovered her career dreams.

Her passion for innovation flourished, and eventually led her to pursue her engineering degree. She chose UWM because of the quality of its engineering program. But she also notes that the professors at UWM are special, because they truly care about what students want to do after graduation.

“My professors always related coursework to real-world situations,” says Schmidt. “We visited so many different plants in Milwaukee to see how they work, instead of just sitting in class.” She says homework, projects and lessons always applied to real work situations to make learning not only thought-provoking, but results-producing.

One class that stood out was her senior design class.

“We got to work with Harley-Davidson, rebalancing their small-engine line,” Schmidt explains. “We worked with their engineers and operators, and experienced what it would be like in the workforce doing what we want to do when we graduate.”

Beyond classes, Schmidt also participated in the International Industrial/Academic Leadership Experience Program, spending a summer studying abroad in Taiwan.

“It’s really hard to find study-abroad programs that focus specifically on what I want to do, but this one was perfect,” says Schmidt. “I was put in a group with Taiwanese students, and learned so much about technology and communicating with other cultures. It’s really helped me in my internships.”

Schmidt has spent the past two years interning at GE Healthcare, working in lean manufacturing and sourcing with suppliers from all over the world.

“Lean manufacturing is all about process improvement and trying to make things flow better,” Schmidt explains. “It’s about finding ways to eliminate waste, bottlenecks and anything that could be holding up processes.”

She has also been an active member of the Society of Women Engineers and Institute of Industrial Engineers chapters at UWM.

“All the organizations UWM offers are so helpful for networking, meeting different companies and being involved in events,” says Schmidt. “I don’t think you could get that exposure anywhere else.”

When she attended one such event through UWM, she was exposed to over 250 hiring companies. She had several on-the-spot interviews and was flown to interview with several other companies afterward.

She eventually received six job offers – all before her December graduation.

Though the decision to choose just one position was difficult, she decided to enter the Chrysler Leadership Development Program – a two-year program that will allow her to spend time in various engineering positions before selecting a final career path at Chrysler.

“I’ll rotate positions every four months to get all aspects of the business,” Schmidt explains. “I’ll be getting five years of experience in just two years.”

During that time, she also plans to complete her MBA.

In the end, Schmidt hopes to move into a manufacturing management role. But no matter where she goes from there, it’s clear Schmidt will always engineer amazing opportunities.

A caring heart leads to a caregiving career

Sue Grochowski
Degree: Bachelor of Science in Nursing, College of Nursing
Hometown: San Pedro Sula, Honduras
It’s a fact: In her free time, Grochowski enjoys learning and practicing the art of belly dancing.

TV’s Mister Rogers once said, “Always look for the helpers.” If you are looking for one of those helpers, look no further than Sue Grochowski.

This College of Nursing graduate began her journey an ocean away. And as fate would have it, it was an immense sea that would carry her to UWM.

Grochowski was born and raised in Honduras, and moved to New Orleans when she was 15. She completed her undergraduate degree in biology at the University of New Orleans and was working as a research technician.

And then Hurricane Katrina struck.

“It happened so suddenly,” Grochowski says. “I was so involved with my work that I didn’t leave until the night before Katrina hit. I only packed for three days, and I was away for almost three months.”

Katrina may have shattered a city, but it couldn’t rattle Grochowski.

She returned home to help family and friends as they transitioned back into the city. Soon afterward, she moved to Milwaukee with a colleague and began working as a researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin. But she felt there was still more she wanted to accomplish.

“I was missing a piece in my career,” says Grochowski. “I felt nursing was the right fit for me because I would be able to interact with patients and help out in the community.”

She chose to pursue her nursing degree at UWM because of its focus on community health.

During her studies, she has had many memorable experiences. She traveled to Australia with the International Scholar Laureate Program nursing delegation, where she learned about the country’s health care system. And during her first clinical semester, her mentor, instructor Marijo Rommelfaenger, introduced her to the National Kidney Foundation’s KEEP (Kidney Early Evaluation Program) screenings.

“It has made such an impact on my life,” reflects Grochowski. “I became so passionate about what they were doing for at-risk populations. It made me realize that this is what I really want to do.”

Grochowski remains an active volunteer with the Kidney Foundation, performing health screenings for diabetes and serving as a bilingual Spanish interpreter.

“I really enjoy volunteering,” she says. “It brings me back to focus on why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

Now Grochowski works as a patient care assistant at Froedtert Hospital, and is doing clinicals in the labor and delivery unit at St. Joseph Hospital.

After graduation she plans to use the knowledge she’s gained through her studies and professional experiences to take her National Council Licensure Examination. She has already been accepted to the Doctorate of Nursing Practice program at UWM. Her goal is to become a Nurse Practitioner, focusing on families and educating vulnerable populations about the importance of preventive care.

“I want to have an impact educating people on primary prevention,” says Grochowski. “Education is the key to helping people make good health decisions, and identifying chronic diseases earlier so that the patient isn’t suffering for years.”

Though the years have led Grochowski in unexpected directions, one thing remains certain. Helping others will always be her path to success.

Paying it forward through education

Kris Thomas
Degree: Doctorate in Urban Education with a major in Human Resource Development, School of Education
Hometown: Port Washington, Wis.
It’s a fact:  He keeps his guitar next to his desk for a stress reliever – he says his guitar skills greatly improved while he was a doctoral student.

Having a high school chemistry teacher for a father, Kris Thomas knew he wanted to follow in those footsteps. But he also knew his path would be a little different.

“I really wanted to teach adults,” he explains. “Adults are very purposeful in their learning, which makes it very direct and impactful. Most adults are really engaged. And for those who aren’t, it’s a fun challenge to figure out how to draw them in.”

After receiving his undergrad in English and Secondary Education, Thomas found a career in which he could achieve his goal of teaching adults – human resources. For the next 13 years, he served in many different HR and training roles. Not wanting to neglect his own education, he also completed his MBA during this time.

And then, he had a revelation.

“I didn’t want to be a jack of all trades, master of none,” Thomas explains. “I wanted to focus on the one thing that I like the most, which is developing people.” Recognizing the correlation between his education degree and experience in the workforce, he saw a clear path ahead.

“I had always wanted my Ph.D.,” he says. “I even told my wife on our first date that at some point I’d be going back to get a Ph.D.”

Though his next steps shocked many colleagues, it was all part of the master plan for Thomas.

He walked away from his successful job to pursue his Doctorate in Human Resource Development at UWM.

He spent the first year focusing full time on his studies. In the second year, he earned a graduate assistantship in the Department of Administrative Leadership, writing, researching and helping professors deliver online courses in D2L.

In 2010, he traveled to Shanghai for an Academy of Human Resource Development conference. “That experience opened my eyes to the possibilities in the academic world,” he says. “We all came from very different places, but we all faced the same issues.”

Throughout his diverse experiences at UWM, one thing struck Thomas the most.

“The degree of selflessness of the faculty,” he says. “They help people get to where they want to go, and that’s what they did for me. I want to pay it forward by doing the same for others.”

Before successfully defending his dissertation in the fall of 2013, Thomas was already putting his doctoral degree to use as a leadership development manager at MillerCoors – a perfect fit for him.

“MillerCoors is heavily invested in learning and development,” he explains. “In my role, I focus specifically on senior leadership. These are people running multimillion-dollar businesses – their training needs are different. I’m using what I learned through my graduate assistantship to create online courses that they can complete in a way that works for them.”

While many people would be content after achieving such success, Thomas isn’t done yet.

“I want to be a scholar practitioner,” he explains. “I love the corporate world, and I also want to keep a toe in the academic waters.”

One day, Thomas hopes to teach as an adjunct and make an impact in the academic world. And while education may be his way of paying it forward, it will certainly pay off big for all those he educates.