Westmont Magazine Up Close and Personal: Professors Go Beyond Teaching to Mentor and Encourage Students

On the first day of class, religious studies professor Helen Rhee passes out cards and asks students to tell her something about themselves and how she can pray for them. “When I see them anywhere — in class, on a break, at lunch, or when we’re walking together — I ask them about what they’ve written,” she says. “I especially want to know their prayer requests. It’s important for me to translate what students tell me into a prayer for them.”

Ben Carlson and students

In addition to supporting her students academically, Rhee asks about their relationship with God, their friendships and whatever they want to share with her. “I keep the conversations confidential,” she says. “I pray for God’s work in their lives. My sense of a calling to teach naturally includes mentoring and spiritual and faith formation. I feel responsible for getting to know students and engaging with their lives.”

Rhee encourages students to visit her during office hours and makes herself available for lunch or for walks around campus. “Students bring questions to me, especially about the church, as I teach a lot about it,” she says. “I always encourage them to get involved in a church and not give up on it. Some students think chapel replaces church, and I help them see the differences and the value of having a faith community.”

Mostly, Rhee focuses on simply listening to students and letting the conversation and relationship develop naturally. “Many of them need a listening ear,” she says. “They want to be heard.” As she models a life of faith for them, she emphasizes the importance of staying the course and the sufficiency of God’s grace.

Students Talking on DC Lawn

Rhee also advises students about seminaries and graduate schools if they’re interested in attending. She writes numerous recommendations for graduate school and positions in ministry.

“I’ve become friends with lots of alums and keep in touch with them,” she says. “These lasting relationships are very rewarding and meaningful for me. It’s encouraging to hear how God is working in their lives.”

Abby Dickinson ’26 found her first semester at Westmont challenging. A psychology major, she got to know Rhee through the Augustinian Scholars program. “Westmont was a whole new environment for me,” she says. “I walked into class, and I was distressed about school and personal things. Every day, Dr. Rhee asked me how I was doing and how she could pray for me and help me. She was immediately invested in me, and I felt an immediate connection. Getting to know a professor is so amazing — and I got to know her as a person as well. We built a relationship on how we could pray for each other.”

Other Augustinians in Abby’s first-year section have also grown close to Rhee. “She prioritizes getting to know students,” Abby says. “She is so kind and asks us as a class how we’re doing. She sees us as people and not just as students.”

Studying with a woman who is a scholar of church history has in­spired Abby. “She is such a strong, wise woman who has overcome so much. Knowing her has strengthened my faith and empowered me.”

Ben Carlson with white board

Abby wants to get a doctorate in psychology and possibly do research in a medical field or criminal justice — or teach at a college. Rhee’s career encourages her, and Abby hopes to take another class from her.

Brooke Murphy ’23 has felt a strong call to ministry since high school. An Augustinian Scholar, she chose Westmont for its excellent religious studies program. She also loves the outdoors, and a semester with the Oregon Extension Program convinced her she could combine environmental advocacy with Christian service and ministry. She majors in both religious studies and environmental studies.

Brooke met Rhee when she took her Reformation and Modern Christianity course. “It was a lot of reading, and I dreaded it,” Brooke says. “But Dr. Rhee is so wise and so funny and witty — she is hilarious. It’s rare to have a professor who combines deep, quiet wisdom with true humor and joy. Church history is interesting and challenging, and I felt safe enough to ask Dr. Rhee difficult questions. I never felt judged in any way. That’s her pastoral nature. The more I know her and the more I take classes from her, I realize she is everyone’s pastor and friend.”

Brooke appreciates Rhee’s dedication to pray for her students. “She really cares about us, and that changes the environment so much,” Brooke says. “I hope every student at Westmont can find a Dr. Rhee — Westmont really pushes personal relationships with professors. She has made my college experience special, and I feel spoiled to be a religious studies major. Dr. Rhee is a great leader — so accomplished and so well spoken. Her classes have been both an academic and a pastoral space.”

A religious studies major, Elyse Wagner ’24 has taken classes from Rhee. She also works as a ministry intern at Free Methodist Church, where Rhee serves as an associate pastor.

“She’s absolutely brilliant,” Elyse says. “She’s deeply insightful and knowledgeable about Christian history and never loses hope for the church despite its difficult history. I didn’t think I’d like church history, but it’s been my favorite class. We eat lunch together, and we pray for each other — it’s a beautiful thing when a professor asks a student for prayer. I’ve drawn a lot closer to her; it’s not all about me. We each share how we’re doing, and I’ve grown academically, spiritually and emotionally.”

When Elyse spoke at a women’s Christmas party at Free Methodist, Rhee quietly nodded encouragement to her. “It was a new experience, so it was amazing to have my professor be proud of me,” Elyse says.

Ben Carlson Research with Students

Elyse studied abroad for Israel Mayterm and plans to earn a master of divinity with an emphasis in spiritual formation at Talbot Seminary. She feels called to women’s ministry. “I want to support women who’ve had difficult experiences, because God has helped and healed me,” she says. A runner who loves working out, Elyse also plans to be licensed as a personal trainer.

During his post-doctoral work at the University of Pittsburgh, physics professor Ben Carlson mentored both under-graduate and graduate students. When they asked to work with him in the summer, he looked for suitable projects. “After two summers, I learned what was appropriate and helpful for students,” he says. “Two of my students at Pitt were offered ATLAS papers, which is significant because people in the collaboration — especially undergraduates — don’t necessarily get credit. My students did enough, so their names appear with the collaborators. I enjoyed mentoring them and have continued to work with student researchers at Westmont.”

Carlson received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for his ongoing study of dark matter with the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

His Westmont students do work aligned with this research. “I find effective students who can complete a project,” he says Professors working at CERN rarely teach at small colleges such as Westmont, and Carlson happily engages undergraduates in the significant project.

He teaches several physics classes in the department and sees majors frequently. Carlson advises and mentors them in class and in the lab. “Mentoring, advising and researching get bundled together,” he says. “I align some of the work in class with my research so they learn the skills they need to complete tasks during the summer. I systematically teach data carpentry and applied computer science — there’s a steep learning curve for these complex skills. I try to prepare as many students as possible to succeed after they graduate, and I’m working on developing a portfolio for them.”

Carlson took the two students who worked at CERN last summer to a three-day graduate-student training at Stanford in the fall. “This will help them make good progress at CERN this summer,” he says.

“I cast a vision of what physics could be and identify students who want to do it but haven’t thought it through,” he says. “I reach out to students and generate conversation and interest in research. Some students discover they like physics but didn’t initially think of it. The important thing is providing exceptional opportunities for them to do research.”

Chandler Baker ’24 has wanted to be a particle physicist since he was 10. He watched programs about science with his grandparents, and one focused on CERN and the people conducting research there.

“It struck a chord with me, and the goal stuck,” Chandler says. “I was so excited my first year at Westmont when I learned the physics department was hiring an ATLAS collaborator. I took a modern physics class with Dr. Carlson and made it clear I wanted to do research with him. It was a means to an end and a reward in of itself.”

Chandler already had some programming experience. “I was thrown into the deep end when I started doing research,” he says. “My first two semesters, I completed deliverable work that can be cited. I did extrapolation with data no one had done before with a great level of accuracy.”

Chandler will return to CERN this summer and plans to study high-energy particle physics in graduate school. “I’ve got a plethora of really good skills, and I’ve made a lot of connections,” he says. He’s also developed a close connection with Carlson. “It’s much more than a relationship with your academic adviser.”

Sean Ryan ’24 started as a premed major but realized he enjoyed math more than biology and chemistry, so he switched to physics. “That’s when Dr. Carlson invited me to get involved in research,” Sean says. “I hadn’t taken general physics yet, and it was a steep learning curve, especially with my limited programming experience. I enjoyed what I was learning and stuck with it — and did a lot of independent study.”

Sean also went to CERN last summer. “It gave me a huge appreciation for the amount of brain power and will power it takes to run such a big experiment,” he says. “I also felt more connected to the research I’m doing.”

When Sean returns to CERN this summer, he’ll focus on analysis and hopes to make good progress. “It’s great to meet with other people working on the project,” he says.

Sean describes his relationship with Carlson as a mix of personal friendship and a professor-student bond. “I worked with him for a year before I took a class from him,” Sean says. “So I developed a closer connection. He invited our class to his home, and I’ve had lots of interaction with him. I’ve learned from the work ethic I see in him — his dedication to work permeates everything.”

After Westmont, Sean will go to graduate school in physics and may do research full time or possibly teach.

Naomi Siragusa ’24 planned to study psychology and then got interested in education, physics and math. Carlson saw her studying in the physics lounge and said, “Do you want to come and do research with me? I have a project for you that combines education and physics.” Naomi had never met him but decided to work with him to build a cloud chamber for high school students. “Then I realized I wanted to do physics,” she says.

Carlson’s passion for particle physics eventually inspired Naomi to join the ATLAS project. “I’m new to this and just finished basic training in programming,” she says. “I’ll go to CERN this summer and learn from people there to become as good a programmer as I can be. I’m preparing to do analysis this summer.”

She’ll go to graduate school and may do research. But she loves teaching science to fourth- and fifth-grade homeschoolers and may also get a teaching credential. “Girls don’t immediately think they can do physics,” she says. “But if they see me getting a doctorate or a credential in physics, it will encourage them to consider it.”

Last summer, Naomi work as a nanny for Carlson’s family strengthened her relationship with him. “He advocates for students in a way I’ve never experienced before,” she says. “He goes out of his way to help students and give them research opportunities. He goes above and beyond to make sure every student has the skills they need and the opportunities they want.”