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Erin Novak ‘17: A Life Interrupted

UST Dedicates the Erin Novak '17 Pocket Prairie

Erin Novak (right) working on establishing the pocket prairie on campus Erin Novak ‘17 was poised to launch her career as an environmental conservationist with a deep fascination for prairie systems. No doubt, this young woman who possessed goodness, discipline and knowledge, would have continued making ever larger contributions to the planet had her life not been interrupted on her way to a prairie site just north of College Station.

Ready to Make a Difference

“Erin was a brilliant young woman with a passion for service,” Dr. Shivas Amin, associate professor of Biology, said. “She was finishing her Master of Science in Ecological Science and Wildlife Management at Texas A&M. She loved prairie systems and ecological management. I pushed her to go on for a Ph.D, but she wanted to get her masters and get on with her life. She felt she wasn’t doing enough, she wanted to make a more immediate impact. So she was talking to her family and exploring opportunities at various places.”

But this change agent in the making left this earth as a young soul — her life’s work interrupted in an instant by another driver. With her thesis complete, Texas A&M awarded her master’s degree posthumously.

A Deep Love for the Catholic Faith

The death of a young person is grievous. “When I heard the news of Erin’s passing, it was like I was punched in the gut,” Amin said. “I wandered around for days in disbelief. She holds so much significance in my heart. We were the best of friends. We would sit and talk about all things spiritual. We had conversations about faith and reason. We had conversations about her faith and how it pushed her toward the field of conservation. It was wonderful to see how the Catholic faith so deeply inspired one person to shape the world. She was taking faith into the world of conservation – where it is not always discussed.”

Her Love of Prairie Ecosystems

Amin explains how Novak’s love of prairies began. “It all started in class when I talked about Houston’s native ecology. I explained how the prairie ecosystem had been removed by man and destroyed. It was a defining moment for Erin and activated the spiritual and scientific parts of her brain. This was also around the time that Pope Francis’ Encyclical letter on our Common Home, LAUDATO SI’, was published. He wrote about the ecological crisis, caring for the environment, stewardship and moral responsibility for climate change.”

These two new pieces of knowledge formed the nexus for Novak to fall in love with prairie systems. Not all of us find our passion so early in life. But for her, from that day forward, the young woman understood the meaning of her life, for she had found her gift, her calling and her career. She went on to earn a rare double major in biology and theology.

Amin observed, “There are not many of those in the world.”

Novak’s Lasting Gift to UST and The University’s Remembrancel to r: Dr. Shivas Amin with Novak's parents, Noel and Mark Novak, at dedication of the Erin Novak's Pocket Prairie

Her love of prairies motivated Novak to work tirelessly and establish a pocket prairie— the University’s own patch of this endangered ecosystem — on the St. Thomas campus. With Amin’s help and Novak’s determination, she recruited students from all over the University to help. She even came up with a plan on how to manage the site. When the prairie pocket was established, 40 people stood with her to dedicate it. The special patch is located on Graustark near W. Main Street. Find it on this google maps link.

And now that Novak’s life has come full circle, it seemed fitting to dedicate UST’s prairie pocket in honor of her. The process began as soon as the news of the accident reached campus.

Shundeez Faridifar, director of Student Leadership and Engagement, who knew Novak during her college years, gathered with others to share memories.

“When we heard of Erin’s passing, several of us got together to not only talk about the great memories we had of Erin, but also how much of an impact she made on us,” Faridifar said. “We knew we had to do something that would honor her. We decided to dedicate the pocket prairie in her honor. We also decided that Celt’s Day of Service was a fitting day for the dedication because of Erin’s committment to service and the environment.”

On the morning of that day, the garden was cut and cleaned. That afternoon, the dedication took place.

Faridifar said, “We had approximately 20 to 25 attendees. Students, faculty, staff, volunteers, family, friends and past co-workers. We had a small dedication by Dr. Amin and Campus Minister, Max Linnville, along with a blessing by Basilian Father Ted Baenziger. Her parents, Noel and Mark Novak, were there. Unable to attend were her sister Audrey ’19 and her brother Ian.

Sprinkles on a Sunny Day as if Erin Was There

“We also got to throw some seeds and set foot on the very special pocket prairie,” Fardifar said. “It was actually a beautiful moment and came during Dr. Amin’s speech when he was explaining how to do the seeding. Amazingly, the sky began to lightly sprinkle, and then the sun was shining on us. It was like Erin was telling us she knew we were there. We added a new sign with her name, and there is an angel statue (donated by her family) at the prairie site.

Erin Novak Spirituality Award

In addition to Novak’s dedication to service and the environment, Faridifar noted, “Erin was a strong Catholic and this year at the Annual Leadership Banquet, the Spirituality Award will officially change names to the Erin Novak Spirituality Award. This award is presented to a student leader who exemplifies the Catholic ideals of prayer, scholarship, virtuous living, moral leadership and the common good. The recipient displays these ideals through leadership activities and involvement.”

Novak touched many lives with her desire to uphold what she felt was her moral responsibility to help heal our common home.