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Christa TessFrom Low GPA to a Ph.D

You might not believe MCTC Communication Studies Instructor Christa Tess Kalk had a 1.27 grade point average at the start of her college career. Now the holder of a doctorate and master’s degree, she is not ashamed to tell her students this.

Christa was a first-generation college student who floundered when she arrived at college and had little direction. When her GPA at Minnesota State University-Mankato (MSU) hit an all-time low, she took the opportunity to begin a soul-searching chapter in her life. She left school to become a flight attendant, fulfilling her desire to see the world. Her three years in the sky were some of the most memorable of her life.

“Sometimes you have to veer off the paved road, find out what you love to do and learn about yourself,” she said.

Her life in the sky took a turn during a routine flight from Chicago to Cleveland when a passenger began acting out. At the time, American Airlines policies advised flight attendants to offer unruly passengers an alcoholic beverage to calm them down. According to Tess, this only “fueled the fire.” While she did not serve him, the passenger attacked her several times during the flight.

“Fighting back never crossed my mind,” she said. “I only cared about the safety of the passengers.”

At no point during the altercations did passengers step in to help. After the incident, the airline issued no punishment against the passenger because he had done no harm to the airplane.

This lit a fire in Christa.

She left her job and, with the support of the flight attendant union and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) president, she appeared before Congress to tell her story and to seek changes in airline regulations.

“We all have bad experiences. We can either submit to them or use them to become stronger,” she said. “Bad things happened to me, and I chose to use my bad experiences as a springboard to create change.”

Christa Tess Kalk speaking to CongressBefore she knew it, Christa was appearing on national television to talk about the incident and push to change regulations. Her advocacy eventually led to the redefinition of airline policy addressing disorderly passengers.

After her legislative success, Christa gave college another chance. She took responsibility for her grades and reapplied to MSU with her 1.27 grade point average to pursue a degree in Communication Studies. This time, she succeeded.

She received her bachelor’s degree in 2001. With the encouragement of one of her professors, Christa went on to pursue her master’s degree, and later, her doctorate. For one of her final theses, she created a training manual for flight attendants dealing with conflict in the confined quarters of an airplane.

Christa taught throughout her post-secondary education, and went on to pursue teaching full-time. She has taught at several universities, and has worked with students at MCTC for the last seven years.

“Some college students have a hard time engaging with their classes,” she said. “Here at MCTC, it's so easy to teach and build community that I have a hard time keeping the discussions to within the class period.”

Christa isn’t ashamed to tell her story. She wants her students to understand that life isn’t always set in stone. The struggles they experience may just be one chapter in their story, rather than the end of it.

“I love what I do. I get to teach something that students can learn and put in place outside the classroom right away,” she said. “Communication is our connection to others.”

Published March 2015

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