By Aaron Simmons
Teaching is hard; making a profound impact on your students is harder. Winning national writing contests as a freelancer while being employed full-time as a college professor is nearly impossible. For Merrie Sue Holtan, it’s all in a day’s work.
Holtan, a communication studies professor at MSUM, has had some recent success with the National Federation of Press Women (NFPW), placing first nationally in Sports Writing and second in Home Articles.
Merrie Sue Holtan still does freelance magazine writing while being employed full-time at MSUM. (Photo courtesy of MSUM School of Communication and Journalism)
She has always loved to write, but when Holtan began entering her work in contests in 1990, there was an ulterior motive.
“I needed to kind of validate who I was as a writer with people in the profession,” Holtan said. “At that time, there weren’t bloggers all over … I wouldn’t write for farm magazines or insurance magazines or lots of different places. So it’s how I made a partial part-time living.”
To her students, both past and present, that recognition was not something they deemed necessary.
“With or without the awards, she is one of the most intelligent, creative and kind-hearted professors I know,” senior Drew Dahlgren said. He took Holtan’s event-planning class. “She doesn’t need any awards to validate who she is and what she can accomplish.”
“I don’t think she really needs awards to be validated,” MSUM alumnus Taylor Shuck agreed. “I don’t believe there is anyone that doubts her knowledge, because it shines through her in all her classes.”
To some, the reassurance is important, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
“In a way, I believe they (validate her knowledge), but I also believe the awards don’t really speak to her character,” said Demetric Davis, a recent grad and one of Holtan’s speech students. “I think that she is very smart, but she’s also funny, and just a really easy professor to get along with. She made a class that I absolutely did not want to take actually enjoyable.”
“She deserves every award she has been given because of the hard work she has put in towards being a teacher and a role model,” senior Anna Soderholm said. Soderholm was another event planning student of Holtan’s.
Still, with a wealth of awards in her possession, Holtan says the knowledge that she belongs in the industry is more important than any prize she could win.
“It’s just really fun to have the recognition. I don’t care about my cheap certificates,” Holtan explained. “That really doesn’t matter anymore. It validates that freelancers can also hold their own with people doing it day-in and day-out.”
Lauded by her peers and her mentees, Holtan has made a profound impact on her students. When given a chance to praise their former mentor, they lined up quickly.
“I think the biggest thing I can remember learning would be not to be embarrassed of messing up, especially in a classroom setting,” Davis explained. “I think she gave all the students comfort in knowing that not everyone has the same skill level for speaking in front of their peers, and that was OK. She also encouraged us to be creative and use our own voice.”
“I learned how to better my communication,” Shuck said. “I would always swing by Merrie Sue’s office and talk sports, and she was so easy to talk to.”
Within the classroom, Holtan excels at connecting with her students. The goal of any professor is to teach relevant information applicable to life after university, and in that realm, she thrives.
“I’ve applied what I’ve learned in her class to my everyday life,” Dahlgren said.
“I’ve learned how to be a strong leader, how to ask the right questions and how to be unique while having fun being a journalist,” Soderholm said.
To have that kind of impact on her students, she must be doing something right.