The road less traveled to cap and gown

A small group of 2015 UW-Eau Claire graduates include nontraditional, first-generation students

More stories from Courtney Kueppers and Nick Erickson

Fast food: yes vs. no
November 4, 2014

For a few seconds on May 23, the air of Zorn Arena will be filled with the mortarboards of celebrating graduates.

Graduating from college for any American is no small task. According to the census bureau, about 30 percent of citizens 25 or older hold a bachelor’s degree.

Every semester, another round of Blugolds who have completed their coursework join that statistic. But for some, their journeys and ability to overcome makes the walk across the Zorn Arena stage anything but a small accomplishment: like those who go back later in life as nontraditional  students, or those who make the path for their family as a first-generation college student.



Kate Nowak began what she jokingly calls her “mid-life crisis” in the fall of 2013. With a black book bag on her back and a few gray hairs on her head, she headed back to school.

Nowak, now 45, cruised through that first semester with flying colors, and by the time finals week was approaching, she was ready for a break. However, on Dec. 13, 2013, Nowak received heart-wrenching news: her 19-year-old daughter, Kim, had been in a car accident. She died instantly.

Despite another tragedy in an already tough life, Nowak forged on through her education toward a bachelor of science on completion degree to add to an associates degree in nursing. She’s certain the additional education will provide more job security.

This semester, however, things became grueling for Nowak. Next weekend, when thousands of Blugolds gather in caps and gowns to walk across the Zorn Arena stage, 126 of them are slated to be nontraditional  students. Nowak hopes to join them.

As she sat among her classmates, most of whom are more than two decades younger than her, in Davies Center this week — her last week of classes before graduation — Nowak faced the fact that her anticipated graduation may be held up by a failing grade.

She’s been dealing with depression this semester and isn’t sure she’ll make the grade in her biochemistry class. A class she failed over Winterim.

“I’m hopeful,” she said over and over again about passing the class. “I’m hopeful.”

Outside of being a full-time student and dealing with personal demons, Nowak is a wife, a mom to a teenager who is about to graduate from Eau Claire Memorial High School, a host-mother to a German foreign exchange student and works part-time as a nurse at the Luther campus of Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.

Her road to higher education has been filled with tragic detours. When the La Crosse native graduated high school, her mother was terminally ill with cancer.

At that time she married and had two children. In the late ‘90s, when her youngest daughter was just 10 months old, Nowak started schooling for her associates degree in nursing at Western Technical College in La Crosse.

Shortly after her first college graduation, an abusive relationship ended in divorce.

“I’ve had a rough life. Things didn’t go the traditional way,” she said.

Nowak is far from being the only nontraditional  student on campus; in fact she’s among about 1,000 students who meet the description.

Nontraditional  students at UW-Eau Claire are classified as 25 or older, married, a parent, military personnel or someone who took a long break after high school, Bonnie Isaacson, nontraditional student coordinator, said.

Regardless of what numbers show, Nowak said she often feels alone on Wisconsin’s “most beautiful campus.”

“You’re the odd man out,” she said. “It’s awkward sometimes being older than the professor. “

Herschel Day — Nowak’s statistics instructor her first semester on campus — made a positive impact on her academic career and life. Nowak was nervous about taking the math course, so she made a point to pop into Day’s office on a regular basis.

“It was astonishing how hard she worked,” Day said.

One of the hardest parts of his four years at Eau Claire was seeing that hard-working student face such tragedy, he said. Following Nowak’s daughter’s death, Day encouraged her to focus on life, not on statistics.

The kindness Day extended in the dark time made all the difference, Nowak said.

Instances like that have made Nowak’s overall experience at the university a positive one, she said. However, she still feels Eau Claire could do more to include nontraditional  students, noting everything is aimed at the younger pupils.

As far as those younger students go, Nowak encourages them to learn early on, to be kind to each other, to not take anything for granted and to get off Facebook in class.

With graduation in just more than one week, Nowak is forging on, just as she has always done, in and out of the classroom.

“I’m not a slacker, it’s just been a really hard battle to get through this,” she said of dealing with depression this spring. “It will be a load off just to have this done.


First generation

Unlike Nowak, Karen Dominguez’s path to graduation was on par with many other Blugolds who will be shaking Chancellor James C. Schmidt’s hand on May 23, as she went straight from high school to college.

But like Nowak, her path to get to Eau Claire was carved out a bit differently.

Dominguez’s parents didn’t go to college.

As immigrants from Mexico, the opportunity for education didn’t present itself for them. But it did for their daughter, and she’s taken full advantage.

Dominguez, a psychology major, said her parents always encouraged her to do well in school and to not take an education for granted. A week from Saturday, she’ll be the first in her family to walk across the stage with a college diploma.

“They just pushed me to do my best, and they are my support system,” Dominguez said of her parents, who will both be in Zorn Arena for graduation.

Her parents served as role models to her. Upon graduation, the Delevan native will bring that full circle.

She’s accepted a job as part of the AmeriCorps program in the Blugold Beginnings office on campus, alongside Associate Dean of Students Jodi Thesing-Ritter.

Dominguez has been heavily involved in leadership positions since she met Thesing-Ritter. Along with working with Blugold Beginnings, she also has served as a student coordinator on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

She said joining the real world and serving as a mentor to others is sort of eye-opening. But at the same time, she relishes the opportunity and is thankful for her parents’ influence.

“It’s stressful, but at the same time it’s really satisfying,” Dominguez said. “I know my parents are really proud of me.”