With the help of her mentor, Clemson teaching assistant Shannon Stefl found herself at the top of her physics class. Now, she aims to be the same motivator for her students.

With the help of her mentor, Clemson teaching assistant Shannon Stefl found herself at the top of her physics class. Now, she aims to be the same motivator for her students.
Image Credit: Craig Mahaffey | Clemson University

Like many college-bound freshmen, Shannon Stefl started her undergraduate degree a bit unsure about her future. Unlike most first-year students, when she wasn’t satisfied with her curriculum, Shannon made a change: from arts to science, from letters to numbers, from French to physics.

“I still remember the first physics class I ever took. It was absolutely terrifying,” Shannon laughed. Completely overwhelmed by the math-intensive material, Shannon went to her professor, Mina Katramatou, for help. “I’d never met a teacher like her before. She was always willing to spend hours with me, sometimes explaining the same concept over and over again until it clicked.”

With the help of her mentor, Shannon found herself at the top of her class. In fact, her classmates began coming to her for the answers. “I led small study groups for exams, and it was an amazing feeling when the whole class began showing up to the review sessions.”

After graduating from Kent State University, Shannon knew she wasn’t done with physics — there was still a lot to learn. This kind of ambitious thinking led her to pursue a Ph.D. at Clemson. Although she was initially attracted to the University because of the friendly and welcoming professors, Shannon was convinced to make Tigertown her home when she realized that grad students aren’t just allowed to teach, they’re encouraged.

Shannon soon became a Teaching Assistant for introductory physics labs, and sees herself in her students every day. “Some professors don’t like teaching non-major students because they don’t know all the answers. I like teaching them for that reason. It’s so rewarding when they finally get it because they started from nothing.”

Since her first semester at Clemson, Shannon’s love for teaching has translated into a talent. “I keep pushing for more responsibilities here,” she said. “That’s how I know it means so much to me.” As the course leader, she sets up lab schedules, manages three class sections and even helps new TAs teach labs. But she does it all for her students.

“My favorite part about teaching is definitely the interaction with students,” she said. “They’re interesting and fascinating and funny.”

A leap into physics revealed Clemson graduate student Shannon Stefl’s true passion for teachingHer students hold her in high regard as well, and recently honored her with the 2013 TA of the year award.

Hannah Bordner, a marketing and graphic communications double major, was just one of the students who recommended Shannon for this honor. Although she has now graduated from Clemson, Hannah still remembers Shannon’s passion for helping her students. Hannah had always dreaded physics, so she was surprised when she found herself looking forward to Shannon’s lab each week.

“Shannon never just gave us the answers. She encouraged us to figure things out on our own, and she was always there to make sure we understood the material,” Hannah said. “The fact that she could spend so much time helping us and study for her Ph.D. at the same time is amazing.”

Shannon isn’t quite sure what the future will have in store for her, but as usual, she isn’t discouraged. “Graduation still seems far off,” she said. “But teaching is something I can’t walk away from. I also love doing biophysics research, so it would be ideal if I could find some sort of balance.”

No matter where she goes, Shannon hopes that her passion for teaching will inspire others — she understands very well the impact that a dedicated professor can make. “Whether I end up teaching at a research-intensive university or a community college, I don’t care. I want be wherever I can benefit students the most.”