By Luke Gair
When asked where she saw herself 15 years from now, Dr. Julie Garai promptly responded, “I see myself at Sewanee.” After receiving a bachelor of science from Doane College, she went on to earn both her master’s degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. Now in her second semester teaching at Sewanee, she has put down her roots and begun to build her legacy here on the Domain.
In her early college years, the idea of becoming a teacher was always in the back of her mind. The undergraduate experience assisted in shaping her career path: “I always thought about being a teacher; my mom is a teacher, my sister is a teacher. But, teaching high school or elementary school is not really for me. I thought I was going to be a high school teacher and then during my undergraduate experience, I went into a high school calculus class and realized I could not teach that for forty years.”
Although temporarily discouraged, Garai found encouragement from an undergraduate professor. From there, she attended graduate school for statistics, which was the first math class that she really loved. Through that experience, she became a graduate teaching assistant. With a smile, she stated, “I taught college students and I really found my passion.”
Garai believes college-aged students are the best age group to teach. She commented, “It’s so fun to be a part of someone’s coming-of-age story and to be there to support people as they are branching out as they are discovering who they are and finding what they are interested in. It’s a fun journey to be a part of.” Here at Sewanee, she thoroughly succeeds in being able to work with students whether it’s through a research project, tutoring, or simply teaching in the classroom.
When prompted as to what her long-term goals as a professor are here at Sewanee, she first joked, “to get tenure,” with a laugh. She has already started working through the University’s data center as well as collaborating with other students and faculty on their research projects. Garai finds great interest in collaborative research, saying “it is every day with statistics I get to learn something new. I get to learn how statistics is used in ecology, education, psychology, or political science. It’s interesting to apply all of these different techniques and to learn something new about those different fields every time I collaborate.” She plans on implementing a minor in statistics, and eventually a major.
From the moment she stepped on the Domain, Garai said she was hooked. “Sewanee really embodies what I value as a person, and this department is a great one to be a part of… one that is new and growing and that’s one of the big reasons that came here.” She emphasizes the importance of listening to peoples’ stories, allowing her to see what they value. “I have noticed circumstances where other people come in with their guns ablazing, committed to a vision they have for themselves or a vision they have for their research or teaching,” but she chooses to approach the process of acclimating to a new environment by meeting with faculty and taking advice, as well as building relationships in her own department and between others.
Although Sewanee is fairly rural, Garai found little difficulty in adjusting to the lifestyle of the Domain. Coming from a small town in the midwest, the adjustment for her came from getting used to living in a forest. “I grew up in the midwest where you can see from horizon to horizon, watch full sunset and full sunrise. Here, it’s kind of like you are on an adventure walking through the woods.” She often takes her dog, Luna, on walks through the various trails on campus along with her husband. Lately, she has been involved in a “thriving new faculty community” where they play board games, and more recently, watch many of this year’s Oscar-nominated films.
“My sister, along with my close friend Dr. Duffy, would say that I am honest to a fault. If I am feeling some way, I am going to tell you what that way is. I am not one to conceal how things are going for me, and if I have a bad week, I am going to be honest.” Honesty is a definite defining characteristic for her.
With a proud gesture to the two degrees hanging on her office wall, one of Garai’s largest life-defining moments was earning her Ph.D. “That was a process where there were so many struggles. I have talked to some of my classes before about Imposter Syndrome and always feeling like other people have an advantage, or other people are better equipped to do things.” Her process of self-discovery allowed her to realize her capabilities, that through working hard she was able to achieve her goal of receiving a Ph.D.
When beginning her educational career, she figured she would earn a master’s degree and go on to be a data analyst. Her commitment and incredible desire to excel drove to her exceed the expectations she had put on herself.