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College grad honors East teacher for making a difference

July 3, 2012

Wauwatosa East High School graduate Ethan Erickson recently made the most of thanking a former teacher who helped shape his academic success.

The 2008 East grad, who just earned a degree from Cornell University in New York, converted his own honor of becoming one of the school's Merrill Presidential Scholars to an opportunity to recognize English teacher Jean Biebel.

For her academic guidance of Erickson in East's Challenge Seminar class, Biebel was the recipient of an all-expense-paid trip to Cornell to attend May 22 and May 23 events for selected teachers who provided positive influence to the university's top one percent of grads who are Merrill scholars.

Erickson also selected one of his Cornell instructors to attend the recognition events.

Tough choice, good memories

Erickson said it was difficult to select just one high school teacher who made a positive impact.

"The Challenge Seminar class really pushed my intellectual boundaries," Erickson said.

The seminar is a high-level course that Biebel described as the school's "capstone of rigor." It is the study a broad spectrum of subjects that is designed to prepare students for intensive academic reading and research.

Erickson said that being part of the process was challenging in that he was exposed to an array of fields of study and had to articulate and defend his thoughts in class discussions and papers. One of his favorite memories, he noted, is the formal debates between students, especially his defending the premise that social science was not a real science.

"It was not a position that I believed in," he said, "so it made me expand my thinking."

"The entire course was challenging and stimulating and made me think about subjects in a deeper way," Erickson said.

Career validation

Biebel received a letter from Cornell in April thanking her for "your care, devotion and skill in preparing Ethan Erickson for Cornell."

She said the letter and honor were a welcome surprise.

"It really validates my work," she said. "I was emotional and humbled because I have some amazing colleagues who I know also had a great influence on Ethan. It's affirming because it helps me know what I do matters in the lives of students."

Erickson and Biebel have kept in touch over the past four years. Erickson has come in and addressed her students when he has been back in town.

"Ethan has a strong moral compass and a sense of purpose," she said. "That's really true for many of our students."

Her experience at the May recognition was extraordinary, she said, because she was able to meet educators from other parts of the globe.

"We were able to engage in conversation about the transition from secondary to post-secondary endeavors," she said.

Future paths

Erickson graduated from Cornell with honors with a bachelor's degree in Industrial and Labor Relations and minors in Inequality Studies and Law and Society. He said he is strongly considering applying to be a Rhodes Scholar.

"I was able to study at Oxford my junior year," he said. "I would like to go back and continue studying abroad."

Erickson would like to find a position in industrial and labor relations in the private sector.

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