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Cloquet grad gives back through AmeriCorps

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For Cloquet graduate William Bauer, science was a passion for years before he was accepted to Stanford University. However, he more happened upon the subject, rather than choosing it.

“In the seventh grade everyone does a research project; it’s part of the science curriculum,” Bauer said. “So I went to the science fair because it was worth extra credit. I liked my project, but it wasn’t something that defined me in any sense. But through some twist of luck my partner and I made it to state.”

That project sparked six years of participating in Cloquet’s widely successful Science Fair program, which ultimately helped him gain admission to Stanford and prepare for the challenges the elite college presented him. However, the Cloquet born-and-raised student still found himself a little overwhelmed on one of the largest college campuses in the United States.

“When I first went to college, that was a big culture shock for me,” Bauer said. “I spent my whole life — 18 years at that point — never really away from family or people I knew. So moving to California was kinda crazy and very different, and suddenly very rigorous.”

Bauer, who is the youngest of Cloquet’s Sue and Mark Bauer’s four children, quickly had to adapt to life away from home. He said his time away helped him learn to be an adult, and learn to embrace challenges.

His latest challenge is working with middle school students. This past year, Bauer decided to take a break from university life to come back to Cloquet for an 11-month fellowship with AmeriCorps, a program focused on connecting adults to public service work to meet the critical needs of the community. Bauer now works full-time at the Cloquet Middle School, doing a variety of things to help students succeed.

“What I love about the AmeriCorps fellowship is that it gives me a lot of flexibility. I’m not pigeon-holed into some incredibly specific role,” said Bauer. “I can be where I’m useful, and I think there’s some of that lacking in schools everywhere. Often, positions need lots of justification for money’s sake, and so it's really nice. Sometimes when I’m working in a classroom and doing something, I can pull out and go where I need to be if a student is struggling or there’s some kind of crisis arising.”

On a typical day, Bauer spends most of his time working closely with students. One example of this is the four periods he devotes to assisting a reading intervention classroom.

“We take some of the lowest readers in the school and try to ‘fast-track’ their reading to bring them back up to grade level,” Bauer said. The program is vital, he said, as helping students catch up in reading will eventually help them in all their other subjects, improving their grades overall.

In addition, Bauer also oversees two study-hall periods. However, the environment is not typical: it's very intensive and never has more than five students. The focus is to work with the students on improving academic and study skills before they enter high school, as Bauer explained.

“These are kids who have trouble keeping track of assignments, or they have other issues or behaviors that affect their academic progress,” he said. “We are trying to get that back up and get them on track.”

And if his schedule weren’t busy enough, Bauer also runs behavior intervention sessions six times a week. The curriculum, called Positive Action, helps students to think more positively in order to make change for themselves.

“A lot of times what’s really causing their problems is external to them,” Bauer said. “This curriculum is really interesting because it sort of turns it on yourself and says ‘what can I do?’”

After the final bell rings, Bauer’s work isn’t finished. He also helps mentor science fair students, bringing him full circle.

“[Science Fair] gives me the opportunity to keep learning in areas that I’m interested in,” Bauer said. “Dr. Welsh is really great about referring kids to me, and we’ll bounce ideas off each other about students’ projects.”

Science teacher and science fair coordinator Cynthia Welsh has been one of his mentors since seventh grade and still enjoys working with him today.

“He’s always willing to help and contribute,” said Welsh. “Sometimes I ask him ‘Do you really have time to do this?’ because he would never say no to me and he’d stay up all night to help.”

And help he does. Bauer uses his computer programming talents to help science fair students with data collection, models and more. His time helps take student’s projects to the next level.

“He’s a gentle, generous fellow,” Welsh said. “He’s a blessing in my life and also for the students.”

Bauer’s time back in Cloquet has left him feeling a little unsure about his future plans.

“Eventually I need to finish that bachelor’s [degree],” Bauer said with a chuckle. “Stanford’s such a cool place — I’m dying to go back there — but I also know that every moment I spend away is giving me rich experience that I can reapply back there.”

This kind of time off is something Bauer feels is accepted by his university.

“Having a four-year graduation rate is starting to become an outdated way for colleges to measure success,” he said. “[Time off] is totally encouraged, and they make it really easy to do.”

While Bauer was originally studying computer science, he is now working toward a degree in “Science, Technology, and Society.” The program focuses on how scientific advances affect the ethics of society and is one of numerous majors — and a very popular major — offered at the prestigious university.

Stanford, according to Bauer, is a “fantastic and non-traditional school where irreverence to cultural norms is as ingrained as academic rigor.”

“Stanford students are encouraged to be weird, to be different,” he said, adding that the university wants the right people on campus, so they helped greatly with the financial challenges of attending the California school.

“They were super generous,” Bauer said. “Most of it comes from donors and past alumni, and they made it really realistic.”

Bauer is also working on a startup technology company right now with fellow Cloquet grad Luke Heine and his Harvard classmate Raphael Rouvinov, plus he has an additional business idea for the future. The technology business — Utopian Slingshot — that he co-founded with Christian Wood and Kyle Lau in 2011 is also a priority in his life. Bauer says the trio try to focus on being creative in their developments while still making a profit.

“We are lifelong learners,” Bauer said. “And we want to make things that affect people.”

Each year, the company awards the Utopian Slingshot Creativity in Technology award to a science fair contestant of their choice. The prize is incredibly motivating: lots and lots of candy.

“We chose candy because that is something that will really stand out and be memorable to a kid,” Bauer said. “We don’t look for the best project necessarily, but a diamond in the rough.”

Despite all his work with his company, Bauer hopes that his time in the schools might be extended.

“The district here is expanding their technology and reshaping the way we manage technology in our schools,” he said. “So I might try to stick around a little longer and do that, too.”

It is Cloquet’s “undiscovered beauty” that draws Bauer back to the community.

“I’m inspired by how people take care of each other,” he said.

But that’s not to say that he didn’t enjoy the atmosphere at Stanford. However, the places are vastly different.

“On any given day there’s 30,000 people on campus,” Bauer said. “It’s a rich environment (academically,) but the tourists and other visitors enliven it.”

Bauer’s main priority for his future isn’t necessarily making lots of money, but affecting change and working more one-on-one with people. One of the most rewarding things for him was to watch the students he had mentored present at the state science fair.

“You just can’t imagine how big my smile was,” Bauer said.

Thankful for all the help he’s given them, the Cloquet students smiled right back at him.