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UND professor and grad bookend educational journey with special commencement photo

Assistant Professor of Elementary Education Sonja Brandt celebrates former preschool pupil’s graduation

Emily Sorenson (left) and UND Assistant Professor of Elementary Education Sonja Brandt reunite for a photo at UND’s Winter Commencement ceremony on Friday, Dec. 17, at the Chester Fritz Auditorium. Sorenson graduated summa cum laude on Friday, with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Brandt was one of Sorenson’s professors in the UND College of Education & Human Development. Brandt also was Sorenson’s preschool teacher in East Grand Forks 17 years ago when she was “Miss Vanderpan.” Photo courtesy of Sonja Brandt.

When it comes to educational journeys, Emily Sorenson can honestly say that UND elementary education professor, Dr. Sonja Brandt, was there for her from beginning to end.

Sorenson, a native of East Grand Forks, graduated from UND summa cum laude on Friday (Dec. 17), with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. And among the gathered UND faculty at the ceremony was Brandt, one of Sorenson’s professors in the College of Education & Human Development. That’s not unusual, at all, for faculty mentors to be involved in their students’ educational milestones. However, what was extra special about this day was that Dr. Brandt also was a huge part of Sorenson’s very first day of preschool 17 years ago in East Grand Forks. Back then, Dr. Brandt was known as “Miss Vanderpan,” and that day was a first for her, as well — her first day as a classroom teacher.

Sorenson and Brandt made sure to reunite to share a moment off stage Friday during UND’s Winter Commencement at the Chester Fritz Auditorium. They reflected on Sorenson’s achievement and the excitement of the day. They also captured the moment in a photo very reminiscent to one they posed for on their mutual first day of preschool in East Grand Forks.

“It has been wonderful being a small part of her journey from preschool to college graduation,” Brandt said.

Preschooler Emily Sorenson and Sonja (Vanderpan) Brandt meet on the first day of school in 2004 in East Grand Forks. It was Sorenson’s very first day as a student and Brandt’s first day as a classroom teacher. Photo courtesy of Sonja Brandt.

Families of educators

Brandt was an elementary teacher for 15 years before transitioning to higher education instruction at UND. She was a preschool teacher for her first year, in her native East Grand Forks, before moving on to teach 4th and 5th grade for three years in Princeton, Minn. After eventually returning to East Grand Forks to teach 5th grade, she began pursuing a Ph.D. in teacher education at UND.  Brand would spend the next 11 years as a 5th grade teacher in East Grand Forks.

While still teaching elementary students full time, in 2017, Brandt would become a part-time instructor in the UND Department of Teaching, Leadership & Professional Practice. In 2019, Brandt began her stint as full time UND professor.  She recalled a familiar face among her college students in those early teaching days at UND.

“In my first on-campus course at UND, (Sorenson) was in that same class,” Brandt said.

Growing up, both Brandt and Sorenson didn’t have too far to look for strong role models in their chosen career paths.

“My father was an elementary teacher and principal, and my mother was a school psychologist,” Brandt said. “(Sorenson’s) mother is currently an elementary teacher in East Grand Forks, so we both come from families of educators.”

Brandt says her best advice for Sorenson, her fellow teacher education graduates and anyone entering the teaching profession is to use personal experiences to shape lesson plans and interactions with students.

“Your personal struggles and achievements in life and in your own schooling are going to give you the perspective and knowledge to work with and plan for students of a wide range of abilities and backgrounds,” Brandt said. “It is so important to get to know your students as individuals so you can build those personal relationships as well as your classroom community, which will positively impact the academic learning as well as social, emotional and behavioral outcomes for all students.”