Lessons in hope

UWL alumna Gerianne Wettstein teaches teen moms at the Family & Children’s Center’s Hope Academy using many of her life experiences to relate. She has also been returning to UWL for more than two decades to help with grant-funded physics workshops for area teachers. She serves as a bridge between the instructors and physics professors, helping the teachers see how they could apply the information in their courses.

Alumna’s life experiences shape how she teaches teen moms

As a society we give up way too soon.

That’s what UWL alumna Gerianne (Buchner) Wettstein says after reflecting on her life. When she returned to UWL a decade after dropping out with a transcript full of Fs, she continued on to earn a master’s degree. When she was told her son who had complications at birth would probably never learn to walk, she watched him grow into a successful mechanical engineer. When a concussion at age 55 made it impossible for Wettstein to continue teaching Kindergarten, she fell into a deep depression. But she didn’t give up hope then either.

Today Wettstein is an instructor at the Family and Children’s Center’s Hope Academy in La Crosse. She works with teen moms just like the one she was as a UWL student for the first time in 1976.

The job allows her to fulfill some of her passions — among them is a fascination with the process of learning. She points to the front of her head: the frontal lobe. To learn, says Wettstein, people need to access this space in the brain. But if other regions are consumed with more basic thoughts, such as how to get the next meal, that learning is not going to happen.

“You have to give yourself time,” says Wettstein. “Sometimes we have to realize that now is not the perfect time. We need to settle some other things first.”

That was true for her as a teen mom attempting college in 1976. She was too overwhelmed with caring for a new baby and full-time work to support the two of them. She couldn’t make room in her brain for new learning. Instead, she and her best friend turned in their books and walked out after three weeks of classes. She didn’t even withdraw.

On a side note, Wettstein doesn’t recommend the dramatic departure. When she came back 10 years later to try college again, she was presented a transcript filled with Fs. She would need to retake all of those classes she’d failed.

But when Wettstein returned to college for the second time, it was the right time. She was married to a supporting husband, Dan Wettstein, and the two had a stable income. She even found support from her children who were in grade school, Jaime and Jordana, as they did homework and studied for tests together.

Still, so many years out of school, Wettstein would learn to adapt. In one of her first courses, she recalls asking the person sitting next to her where the “on” switch was on the computer.

Wettstein graduated with honors and a degree in elementary education four years later in 1990 and began teaching Kindergarten at a private school. There she grew enthralled with teaching children this age.

“They are the most brilliant children you will meet in your life,” she says. “I am constantly asking ‘why?’ They are constantly asking ‘why?’ It was a match made in heaven.”

With Kindergarteners, she witnessed the magical interaction that can happen between a teacher and student when a student grasps an idea for the first time. She compares it to a pitch in a baseball game that the crowd sees at 90 miles per hour, but the batter sees slowly connecting at the bat. She recalls one five-year-old child who would at times act up. He grew fascinated with a picture on the classroom wall of then President Barack Obama. It was magical to him when he discovered that both he and Obama were left handed. “You just saw him see for the first time, ‘I can take on the world!’”

To teach Kindergarteners in public schools, Wettstein would need to return to school to get another license. She returned to UWL and ended up completing a master’s in early childhood education. She then made a leap into the public schools where she worked with kids from pre-K through fourth grade. She had positions in several schools including Hamilton Elementary School, which she calls “the best gig ever.” Staff members were focused on students and families, and education of the whole person, she says.

Former Hamilton Principal Jim Bagniewski calls Wettstein an excellent teacher who was always there for her students whether going to school board meeting to support for a particular cause or gathering food donations for the school pantry.

“She is a huge advocate for people in need of assistance whether in Kindergarten or high school. She has always been an advocate for the underdog,” says Bagniewski. “But she doesn’t want to just sit there and talk about it. She wants to get things done. I loved working with her.”

Wettstein’s daughter, Jaime Erickson, also saw her mother’s devotion to the kids she taught. “Those kids always knew that she loved them and would do anything for them,” Erickson says. “She was always reminding them they have someone in their corner no matter what. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are never told that.”

Wettstein was loving the difference she could make for kids at Hamilton when she fell and suffered a concussion in 2013. Neurologists wouldn’t clear her to work in a room filled with five-year-olds again. “My career sadly ended,” she says.

Wettstein missed her “family” at Hamilton. She missed the magical connections with kids. What occurred next was a deep and long depression.

Erickson said her mother thrived when she was making an impact, and she saw her suffering without that potential. Erickson began searching for positions for her mother that would bring her that opportunity. When she found the position at Hope Academy, she knew her mother would be a good fit.

Wettstein says working with kids who are completing their high school or GED is very different from Kindergarteners. If you show a group of five-year-olds a flower, a leaf and a pile of dog poop — all of it is exciting and amazing, she says. For the older students that same magic has faded, which makes it more difficult to regroup when faced with challenges. Plus, the challenges her students at the Hope Academy face are bigger and more systemic. “They need a greater amount of education and support to overcome them,” says Wettstein. “But they do have the hope.”

And they get more hope when Wettstein shows them her transcript filled with Fs from UWL.

“It is crazy for the simple fact that she has overcome it all,” says Hope Academy Senior Haley Martella. “She is here and she is amazing.”

Martella, 17, has a baby girl while balancing two part-time jobs, school at Hope Academy, and currently a search for an apartment. She says Wettstein has a lot of examples from her life that relate to her own.

“She is definitely inspirational and encouraging me not to give up — that I should do what I want in life.”

Martella plans to attend Western Technical College to pursue a welding career next year.

“Right now everything I’m learning and everything Geri has taught me is helping me with my mindset on what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’m close to making it more real,” she says. “I never saw myself getting this far in life, but here I am.”

Wettstein says she was blessed to have a place like UWL, which gave her a second chance. And she is grateful for her support system of family, friends and amazing teachers who believed in her. “They have been my north star as there are times my life can get very dark and appear very hopeless,” she explains.

Erickson says her mother’s story showed her that struggles can at times feel unpassable, but  — eventually — you get there.

“It may take years but you get there,” she says. “We all learned that from her.”