Growing up in West Salem and heading to UW-La Crosse as a first-generation student, Sara Dziki didn’t even consider going to graduate school. The same was true for Dziki’s younger sister, Jamie Dorn.
But the two, then Erickson sisters, were invited into the university’s McNair Scholars Program. The U.S. Department of Education program works to increase the number of underrepresented students of color and low-income, first-generation students to pursue graduate study.
A master’s degree is something both sisters ended up pursuing, and the Coulee Region benefited with two natives staying to work in the area — one in fish biology, the other in personal wellness.
“I was a first generation, low-income college student who had no experience with research and had never even thought of going to graduate school,” explains Dziki, now a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Midwest Fisheries Center in Onalaska. “The McNair Scholars Program opened up my eyes and helped me achieve what I didn’t think was possible for a student in my position.”
Dziki earned a bachelor’s degree in geography with a concentration in environmental science with minors in biology and environmental studies in 2013. She stayed on campus to earn a master’s in recreation management at UWL in 2015.
Working through anxiety and depression about what to do after college, Dziki, at times, neglected classroom and research responsibilities.
“The McNair Program staff made sure I was getting to where I needed to be and helped push me back on track,” she notes. “They prepared me for graduate school and gave me a glimpse into what getting a higher degree would look like. I’m so glad I followed through with it.”
Dorn followed her older sister to UWL. She originally planned a career in dietetics, but re-focused on exercise science, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2015.
Staying for graduate school, Dorn completed her nutritionist certification while helping clients with nutrition coaching. After earning a master’s in applied sport science in 2017, Dorn started her own business as a personal trainer, nutritionist and wellness coach to help clients improve their mental, physical and spiritual health while connecting with their bodies.
Dorn attributes the McNair Scholars Program with helping her finish college. For one thing, it helped her become more resourceful.
“I struggled with a lot of anxiety in college and I knew this program was a safe space for me,” she explains.
Like her sister, Dorn was a first-generation college student who knew little about higher education and wasn’t originally considering graduate school.
Looking back, she’s thankful for the professors who encouraged her to check it out.
“Being a McNair Scholar set me up for success in higher education that I know I wouldn’t have had without it,” Dorn says. “I am forever grateful.”
The McNair Scholars Program at UWL began in 2009, enrolling 28 students annually with at least half in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors. Since arriving on campus, 133 students have benefitted. A total of 78% have enrolled in graduate study.
Another one of the scholars is José Rubio-Zepeda, a 2014 political science and Spanish double major. He came to UWL from Ellsworth, Wisconsin, to study music. Eventually, he knew he wanted to work in government with aspirations of becoming a language interpreter for the United Nations.
Unsure about grad school, Rubio-Zepeda appreciated the program’s rigorous training for graduate school.
“McNair is grad school boot camp as an undergrad,” he jokes. “The support and dedication from faculty and staff to support underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students is such a valuable experience. It allowed me to learn about research, pushed me to do well academically and propelled me forward into two graduate programs.”
Now back on campus after earning two master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Austin in 2017, Rubio-Zepeda advises multicultural students. He uses the tools he learned as a McNair Scholar to demystify graduate school for current students.
“It’s come full circle,” he notes.
Senior Student Services Coordinator in UWL Career Services Aiyana (Bloome) Dettmann wanted to help students like she was years earlier. The 2012 graduate in communication studies from Unity, Wisconsin, stayed on campus to earn a master’s in student affairs administration in 2014.
Dettmann says the program provided her with a lot of direction and information she lacked as a first-generation student. She says the mentorship and guidance she gained from her undergraduate research were immensely helpful as she undertook her master’s degree.
“The care, attention and understanding I received as a McNair Scholar provided an excellent model for working with my own students now,” Dettmann says.