Local high school students take advantage of program to take UW-Eau Claire classes


Photo by Courtney Kueppers

Sammy Gibbons and Emma Barnhardt joke with each other Tuesday night in the WHYS 96.3 FM Eau Claire Community Radio booth in downtown Eau Claire. The Memorial High School seniors host a weekly program, “Generation WHYS.” Barnhardt and Gibbons have both taken classes at UW-Eau Claire through the Youth Options program, along with being full-time high school students and partaking in extracurricular activities.

Story by Courtney Kueppers, Editor in Chief

In a cozy radio booth in downtown Eau Claire, Sammy Gibbons and Emma Barnhardt told light jokes and played the likes of David Bowie and Caroline Smith over the airwaves of WHYS community radio.

They both donned knit sweaters, glasses and had kicked off their shoes to reveal wool socks. Their casual demeanors matched the feel of their hour-long program. It’s a weekly ritual, and has been for the past year. The best friends host “Generation WHYS,” which features mostly alternative music.

Aside from being co-hosts on air and best friends, the duo are also classmates at Memorial High School. Despite the fact that they won’t walk across the stage in their purple cap and gowns until June, the two are no strangers to college classrooms.

Gibbons and Barnhardt are among 26 students from area high schools enrolled in classes on UW-Eau Claire’s campus. Many of their peers take classes through distance education, which involves a university faculty teaching a class through a webcam and high school students streaming it in a classroom. These options make up Eau Claire’s Youth Options program, which offers higher education to younger students.

“I like being challenged, I like doing something different,” Barnhardt said. “If I’m not challenged I get bored.”

Gibbons and Barnhardt take Advanced Placement courses at Memorial, but chose Youth Options as a sort of trial run for their future college experiences. Last semester, at 2:51 p.m. when the final bell of the day rang at Memorial, the duo headed across town to catch their 3:30 p.m. CJ 105 course in Hibbard Hall.

Gibbons, who plans to study journalism next year, hoped the class would give her a leg up on her major. She already completed Memorial’s journalism class, which involved her being the face of the morning announcements, and was ready for a new challenge. The hybrid course was manageable, despite also being a full-time high school student, hosting the radio show, dancing at Diamond School of Dance and participating in National Honor Society, Gibbons said.

Barnhardt said overall she was pleased with her university experience, so much so that she has decided to enroll as a full-time Blugold in the fall.

“I just like the setting,” Barnhardt said of campus, noting she immediately felt comfortable. “I wanted to go somewhere I liked with good programs.”

Her sidekick has yet to decide where she will study to pursue a career in broadcast journalism.

Aside from meeting new people, getting acclimated to college life and facing new challenges, Barnhardt and Gibbons also noted the price tag of the Youth Options program was hard to pass up. Due to their passing grades, the Eau Claire School District footed the bill.

Making the grade

Barnhardt started her second university course, Sociology 101, on Tuesday afternoon. This time she did so without Gibbons. Despite knowing she wanted to return to the program this semester, Barnhardt didn’t know what course she was taking until late last week. This is because Youth Options students, along with all non-degree seeking students, register last.

Intro classes in both sociology and communications are common courses among Youth Options students, Eric Rotvold, academic adviser, said. The courses vary, depending on what is open when these students get the last pick of the crop. This semester Youth Options students are taking classes in history, English, political science and math, among others, Rotvold said.

Faculty members across departments have had a positive response to the younger pupils in their classroom, Rotvold said.

“These are high caliber students,” he said. “They tend to do very well and be very well informed.”

Students from Eau Claire, Durand, Mondovi, Chippewa Falls, Eleva-Strum and Osseo-Fairchild school districts have enrolled in the program. Others take advantage of the program at Chippewa Valley Technical College and UW-Stout. Most school districts pay for the student’s tuition, Rotvold said.

Besides giving students a chance to get the university experience, Youth Options adds another dynamic to university classes, he said.

A head start

Ellen Schubbe graduated in December with a degree in elementary education. The program often takes students five years but Schubbe was able to graduate in 3.5 years thanks to the college courses she took in high school. Similar to Youth Options, Schubbe did Postsecondary Enrollment Option through her high school, which allowed her to take classes at Century Community College in White Bear Lake, Minn.

As a result, Schubbe came to Eau Claire feeling more comfortable with college courses and 42 credits already to her name, she said.

“It was one of the best decisions I made in high school,” the recent grad said. “It saved a lot of time and money and I felt very prepared.”

Junior business major, Brittany Brown, also did PSEO in high school. She said one drawback was having so many credits at the onset of college forced her to decide quickly what she wanted to major in.

Other students, like Megan Shaw, said PSEO helped her decide what she wanted out of her college experience. Shaw, a senior international business and Spanish student, took classes at both the University of Minnesota and Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minn. The contrast between those institutions helped Shaw decide on a medium size school like Eau Claire.

On Tuesday Barnhardt began her final semester at Memorial High School and also her second at Eau Claire. Without her best friend by her side at the university, Barnhardt was worried about meeting a new friend. The girl next to her laid Barnhardt’s fears to rest when she struck up conversation. Barnhardt said it reaffirmed her choice to take classes at Eau Claire now and in the fall.