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An Odyssey of a life

Haley Zblewski

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Managing to balance 16 credits and a part-time job is more than enough work for any college student. On top of midterm projects, 14-page papers and of course final exams, finding the time and energy to go to work can be difficult.

But for sophomore elementary education major Sara Passint, 16 credits and a part-time job just wasn’t enough.

“I try to be involved in the community,” Passint said. “But sometimes, just a little too much.”

Right now, Passint has two part-time jobs, one as a waitress and the other at Payless Shoes. A few times a month, Passint works with a home health care program where she babysits a first grader with Down Syndrome.

Last year she volunteered with UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Beginnings tour and she is this year’s Fairest of the Northern Wisconsin State Fair in Chippewa Falls. The scholarship opportunity is also like an internship because Passint promotes the fair for the year. She will also help select next year’s Fairest of the Fair.

Passint teaches swimming lessons as well, something that she says made her want to become a teacher.

As if this wasn’t enough for one person to handle, Passint has recently picked up yet another role: coach of Roosevelt Elementary School’s Odyssey of the Mind team.

Odyssey of the Mind

When she came to UW-Eau Claire, Passint had never heard of Odyssey of the Mind.

She received an email sometime in October or November asking for volunteers to help with the program, she said.

“I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into at the beginning of the semester,” Passint said. “I figured for good volunteer hours, I’d go and see what it was about, not knowing anything about it.”

But replying to that email turned into more than just another volunteer opportunity, not only for Passint, but for the kids and their parents as well.

Jeff Crowell, associate professor of music — percussion and jazz — at UW-Eau Claire, is the father of Madeline and Hannah, two of the kids on Passint’s team.

Citing her experience with Fairest of the Fair is something that helped her lead the team so well.

“Through that, she’s had to be more mature with dealing with people and public speaking and all those things,” Crowell said. “You can tell that really paid off in this experience.”

“She is — it sounds cheesy — but she’s wise beyond her years,” Crowell said. “She’s really smart and with it. She’s also very creative and smart about asking for help and finding the best way to do things.”

Odyssey of the Mind is an international program that has children solve problems in creative ways. There are several Odyssey of the Mind teams throughout the elementary, middle and high schools of Eau Claire, but Passint’s team was the first from Roosevelt Elementary School.

Each team chooses a long-term problem that they work on all year, Passint said. The kids from Roosevelt had their choice of five problems, which ranged from building things to acting.

Much to Passint’s relief, her team, made up of five fifth graders and one fourth grader, decided to work on a problem that involved creating a play and acting in it.

“One problem was to make a vehicle entirely powered by mousetraps,” she said. “I’m glad we didn’t go down that route because I don’t think I even know how to set a mousetrap to begin with.”

The kids’ job with their long-term problem was to create a play in which they visited three places: two real places, and one entirely made up by them. For the first two, the kids’ choose to travel to Loch Ness and Mount Everest.

For the third, the team created a place they called Happyville, where they added “a whole bunch of weird fifth grade things,” Passint said, laughing.

Keeping up with the kids

Passint hadn’t originally planned to come to UW-Eau Claire. As a native of Chippewa Falls, she was thinking of moving further away from home.

“Growing up in Chippewa, I never really knew the university was here in Eau Claire because when we’d come here, we’d just go to the mall,” she said with a laugh. “We hadn’t ventured over to Water Street quite yet.”

Her plan was to go to The University of Minnesota-Duluth to major in psychology, but changed her mind and her major “at the last minute,” she said.

With a switch of major came a switch of schools.

“I had that ‘Oh, this is the right school’ moment and I think that’s because I ended up switching to elementary education,” she said. “And it worked out good because we have such a good program here.”

Passint said that working so closely with the kids on her Odyssey of the Mind team has made her want to become a teacher even more.

“It’s fun to see how they interact with each other and it’s been really cool to form that bond with them,” she said “I’ve only known them a couple of months, but I know so much about them already.”

But with Odyssey added to her day-to-day life, Passint lost her Friday mornings — the only day she doesn’t have an 8 a.m. class — in order to help the kids practice, she said.

“It really doesn’t feel like that much of a time commitment, though,” she added. “You have to prioritize what you want to do; being organized helps.”

Passint tried to keep organized by planning ahead, she said, which includes covering her apartment in to-do lists and sticky notes. But finding time for everything can be tough.

“I definitely don’t spend as much time on homework as I should,” she laughed.

Winning the Competition

When the Roosevelt Elementary Odyssey of the Mind team went to the state competition in Madison this March, everybody was surprised when they won, especially Passint.

“We didn’t expect to get anywhere near finals,” Passint said. “All year the kids were so excited —‘What’s our chance?’—and I’d say ‘You guys are doing great.’ But it’s like a one percent chance that we’d make it because it’s unusual for first year teams to make it.”

But they came in first place.

Along with the team’s long-term problem, the kids were presented with a spontaneous problem at the competition.

“That’s what won it for them, I think,” Passint said. “They’re just so creative, and they were allowed to show what they can do.”

As creative as the kids are, Crowell said that that wasn’t the only thing that got the team first place.

“If we’d had a different coach, we probably wouldn’t have gotten first,” he said. “Her choices helped the kids do the best they could do, and that day their best just happened to be first.”

Winning in Madison means that Passint’s team gets to go to the World Finals being hosted at the University of Maryland over Memorial Day weekend.

In order to go to the World Finals, the team will have to raise $10,000.

Crowell and his wife Lisa have opted to take some of the work off of Passint’s shoulders and are spearheading the fundraising efforts.

The Crowells and the other parents have also offered to pay for Passint’s trip to Maryland as a thank you for all of her help.

“She’s a total volunteer; she gave up all her time,” Crowell said. “I’m thankful because fate has it she decided to do it, but she’s definitely part of the reason why the team won. Because of her involvement, it has given my daughters the opportunity to experience something really fantastic in life.”

Flying toward new places

Although she doesn’t want to leave her Roosevelt team behind, Passint said she plans to take a year away from Eau Claire next year to join the Air National Guard.
“With the Air National Guard, I’ll hopefully be able to move around a bit so I’m not stuck here forever,” she laughed.

She still has to pass a physical test and a few other tests before getting in, but she said she expects all of that to go well.

Passint said she is most looking forward to being able to travel and hopes to be able to go into medical with the Air National Guard because she wants to do something different.

“I’m nervous for basic,” she said with a laugh. “I’m kind of a girly-girl, so doing the whole no makeup and working out thing for two months, it seems like a long time.”

She plans to come back after basic training to see if her Roosevelt team will still be participating in Odyssey of the Mind. Although they’ll be in a new district as they move on to middle school, Passint said that she’d be excited to work with them again.

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The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.
An Odyssey of a life