Gretchen Schowalter

Creating a Student Community through SPS

Gretchen Schowalter's dad knew she was going to be a physicist even before she did. When she was seven years-old, he gifted her the game The Way Things Work by David Macaulay. It captured her curiosity, and Gretchen tinkered around with the game experiments and tried to use math skills to solve problems. But as many children’s toys do, it ultimately ended up in the bottom of a closet. Little did she know it planted the seed for a future passion.

Gretchen found her way back to physics when she switched high schools while growing up in Washington state. The prospect of attending a new school with new classmates was nerve-racking, and she thought about where she could find her community. It was her physics teacher who drew her out and helped her find that place. He was the teacher who offered students support during lunch, participated in student events, and felt bringing students together was important. Through his mentorship, Gretchen found friends and classmates who were genuinely excited about physics.

After high school, Gretchen followed her love of physics and enrolled in Lewis & Clark College where she became a double major in physics and math. In 2019 she was introduced to the Society of Physics Students (SPS) when she attended PhysCon, a general meeting for the physics community sponsored by SPS. She was introduced to a large group of physicists that included women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA community, making the idea of who could become one much bigger. Through this experience she made numerous friends and committed to reviving Lewis & Clark’s SPS chapter when she returned to campus.

It wasn’t long after Gretchen revitalized Lewis & Clark’s SPS chapter membership that the COVID-19 pandemic hit and a year of uncertainty unfolded. Not only were students faced with the pandemic, but being in Portland, Oregon, where Lewis & Clark is located, they also saw mass protests for racial justice and equality and the most destructive forest fires on record. Through the turmoil, Gretchen tried to focus on staying connected with her classmates, but it was hard with so many things on her mind.

As the president of the Physics Club, Gretchen started having online meetings, planned activities such as virtual movie nights, and looked for opportunities for outdoor events. She and her peers did their best to stay in good spirits, but it wasn’t the same. That’s why when Lewis & Clark’s campus returned to a fully in-person format in fall 2021, Gretchen was excited to build up the physics community again.

When Gretchen found out about SPS’s Pandemic Assistance Fund it was the perfect opportunity to create a comfortable space for students. The fund provided resources for a physics department food pantry where students can grab a snack, hang out, or sneak a nap in between classes. It’s stocked with items like ramen and soups, but also candy and chips. No matter what, there is always something there. Since its creation in fall 2021, the space has drawn people together and has helped students reconnect after being in a virtual environment for so long.

Gretchen is a natural leader and is now SPS’s associate zone 17 councilor. Taking advantage of the SPS Pandemic Assistance Fund grant was second nature to her, and through her vision she was able to bring her classmates together and reconnect after a stressful couple of years.