Eastern Mennonite University alumnus Derek Sauder said that at EMU he "grew closer to many friends and developed relationships that will last for my lifetime." He is pursuing a doctorate of assessment and measurement at James Madison University. (Photo by Jon Styer)

Grad School Q&A: Derek Sauder prepares for a career with real-world, high-stakes implications

Derek Sauder ’14 is a second-year doctoral student of assessment and measurement at James Madison University, where he also earned a master’s degree in psychological sciences. Meeting Kierra Stutzman, whom he married in 2015, was one of his highlights of being a student at EMU – but he also has found that his subsequent studies “have aligned well” with his math and psychology double major.

What has been your post-EMU studies and/or career path? 

A week after graduating from EMU, I began a research assistant job at the American Institutes of Research (AIR) in Washington DC, where I worked for just over a year. I focused primarily on two tasks: database entry of metadata from surveys conducted by the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) and quality control of NCES publications, to make sure they aligned with NCES standards. 

While I very much enjoyed working for AIR as a company, I wasn’t particularly enthralled with the work, so I enrolled in James Madison University’s psychological sciences master’s program at JMU. After completing that in 2017, I began my doctoral studies. 

I have found that both the master’s and PhD programs have aligned well with my studies from EMU, which is rather impressive given that my two undergraduate majors – math and psychology – don’t necessarily overlap much. The focus of both of my JMU programs is on educational assessment, which requires learning statistical analyses (math) and applying them to actual students (psychology). 

I hope to end up working in the testing and licensure field, applying the statistical models I’m learning to real-world, high-stakes decisions such as whether or not a doctor gets certified.

How did your academic studies and professors at EMU prepare and inspire you for your graduate studies and/or current work? 

As I was a double major and in the honors program, I didn’t have a lot of time to take courses outside of my majors. Fortunately, the courses I took, particularly in math, have served me well in the statistics portions of my current PhD program. I was able to make connections between what seemed like abstract concepts at the time (e.g., linear algebra) with real-world applied statistics (e.g., multiple regression). Even outside of coursework, both my math and psychology courses helped to foster a researcher mindset within me. 

Similarly, the courses I took instilled in me a strong interest in scientific inquiry. I am in my current program because I wanted an answer to the question, “How do we know tests work and tell us what we think they tell us?” 

I want to give a shout-out to Deirdre L. Smeltzer, who was one of my math professors and was also a mentor for me through the honors program. She always encouraged me to pursue graduate education, and I enjoyed all of our one-on-one meetings in Common Grounds, even if they became less frequent as the years went on.

What attracted you to attend EMU as an undergraduate? 

My older sister, Alexis Sauder Rutt, attended EMU for her undergraduate education, and I really enjoyed the location and feel of campus when I visited her. 

However, the main attraction for me was the cross-cultural opportunity. The required semester-long cross-cultural appealed to me because it was more than just a study abroad. Students weren’t just attending a different university in a different country; they were actually living and interacting with people vastly different than themselves. 

My sister went to New Zealand, and I had my sights set on India. When I started at EMU, however, the India cross-cultural was not going to be offered while I was there. Instead, I had the awesome opportunity to go to South Africa and Lesotho in the fall of my junior year. It was amazing, and I loved the place and the people. 

Lastly, I wanted to attend EMU because it was a Mennonite institution, where I knew I would have a set of shared values with a large portion of the student body.

What are some favorite memories of your time at EMU? 

I really enjoyed my time working with Linda Gnagey in the tutoring center. It was a great experience to help other students with the gifts that I have been given. 

Another thing that has stuck with me has been an ultimate frisbee group that originally started as an EMU student group that played on Wednesday nights. Although most of the group has since moved away, there is still a core group that play Wednesday nights that is ever-expanding to include EMU alumni, community members and current students. 

As I’ve already mentioned, the cross-cultural was an amazing experience. I would love to go back to South Africa sometime in the future. 

Finally, I also enjoyed just being on campus and hanging out at Common Grounds. I love their Valley Turnpike milkshake!

How would you describe your personal growth while a student at EMU? 

Academically, I grew into a more confident writer and speaker, and these skills have continued to serve me well and develop through my graduate education.

I also certainly feel as though I matured during my time at EMU. College is a formative time, and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it at a large university where I could get “lost” in the crowd. While at EMU I grew closer to many friends and developed relationships that will last for my lifetime. It’s always wonderful to meet up with longtime friends here in Harrisonburg, including at annual events like the Virginia Relief Sale.