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2021 Notre Dame salutatorian shares importance of communication, discovery

| Friday, May 21, 2021

Throughout grade school, Alexis Waldschmidt would often write speeches in braille on note cards so she would not have to look down when presenting. She started this practice after becoming fascinated with braille and American Sign Language (ASL) following a presentation she gave on Helen Keller in third grade. 

 “Just to be able to communicate with people, to be able to communicate in ASL, with people who might be hard of hearing or deaf in that community. I think it’s very important,” Waldschmidt said.

Waldschmidt has continued to follow her passion for language and communication as she is about to graduate with majors in Chinese and biological sciences as the salutatorian of the class of 2021. She was named the biological sciences class of 2021 valedictorian and holds a 4.0 grade point average.

Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
Alexis Waldschmidt was named the class of 2021 salutatorian.

Waldschmidt, a native of Naperville, Illinois, hopes to merge her passion for biology with her love of communication and one day become a professor of biology. She initially came to Notre Dame with the intention of entering the medical field, but quickly discovered she wanted to teach.

“I’d always just assumed I would become a doctor,” Waldschmidt said. “It was never really something I thought about, it was just something I had assumed.”

While taking a course at a community college to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA), Waldschmidt began to discover her love of teaching. One of the students in the class was from Iran and had a disrupted educational background which prevented her from knowing some material that was required for the course, so Waldschmidt would stay back with the other student and help her learn the material. 

“So I just stayed after and just taught her the entire time,” Waldschmidt said. “That’s what I mean, that’s stuff I really enjoyed. Just staying after and teaching her and I just love teaching.”

In addition to her passion for teaching, Waldschmidt also greatly enjoys research. She has worked in professor Joseph O’Tousa’s lab studying visual systems of mosquitoes in order to learn how to prevent them from spreading viruses such as dengue. Waldschmidt will work in the lab for the next year after graduation. 

Biology, nature and science have been Waldschmidt’s interests since she was a child. She cited a love of trying to discover the unknown as fuel for her research.

“I just love what we don’t know and figuring that out because I love that process of discovery,” she said.

Waldschmidt hopes to combine her studies of biology and Chinese to study or conduct research in China or Taiwan one day.

She continues to study Chinese because she said once people overcome language barriers, rich differences and profound similarities exist between people, and as a result, people can become more connected.

“I’ve naturally started realizing that learning language is one of the most powerful ways that people can learn humanity,” Waldschmidt said.

Throughout her sophomore year, Waldschmidt tutored first-year students in introductory biology. Beginning junior year, she transitioned to tutoring student-athletes. Waldschmidt said she not only likes meeting other students and teaching them through tutoring, but those she tutors also give her a new perspective on the material.

“Everyone has such diverse backgrounds and different ways of approaching problems and different questions they ask that I would just never have thought of myself,” she said. “So it just gives me a new perspective on the material.”

In addition to being named valedictorian of the biological sciences class of 2021, Waldschmidt received the biology department’s Paul F. Ware, M.D., Excellence in Undergraduate Research Award, the Fulbright Scholarship for teaching English in Taiwan and won the College of Science Dean’s Award. She is also a member of the Dean’s List and Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

As Waldschmidt graduates from Notre Dame, she said the past four years have fostered her curiosity and showed her the importance of kindness. 

“It’s just given me a better understanding of how to embody kindness and just how important that is,” Waldschmidt said.

This article previously incorrectly said “with an ASL” instead of “in ASL.” The Observer regrets this error. 

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