This week is National Nontraditional Student Week, one of Continuing Studies’ favorite times to share success stories about its learners, especially those who’ve returned to college as adults and overcome barriers in doing so.
One of these learners is Chee Thao, who resumed his education with help from a PLATO scholarship, one of many scholarships and awards Continuing Studies’ Adult Career and Special Student Services (ACSSS) offers each year. The application period for the 2018-19 school year is Dec. 1, 2018-Feb. 20, 2019.
Thao was working as a data analyst at a Madison-area company when he received some surprising news from a manager: He could make twice as much money doing similar work if he earned a college degree.
“This really spurred me to look into schooling,” Thao says. “I decided to attend school part-time at first to help me ease back into my education. This also allowed me to have a more flexible work-school schedule.”
He began his higher-education journey at Madison College and completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Now he’s back at UW–Madison earning a graduate degree in biological systems engineering, thanks in part to the PLATO scholarships he received in 2015 and 2017.
Thao hopes to find a job working on soil and water conservation issues after he graduates in fall 2019. With an academic background rich in research and a growing list of professional contacts, he is well on his way to this goal.
A new road forward
A decade ago, Thao’s future looked much different.
“I had taken a few college courses after high school,” he explains, “but due to a lack of funding at the time, I had to stop. This eventually turned into a 10-year hiatus.”
After earning his associate’s degree part-time at Madison College, Thao decided to attend UW–Madison full-time so he could earn his undergraduate degree faster. His scholarships helped him pay his tuition and cope with the income he sacrificed by trading full-time work for full-time studies. In just a few semesters, he completed a bachelor’s degree in soil science and a certificate in environmental studies.
Thao’s undergraduate experience helped him hone his goals and prepared him well for his graduate program. It also familiarized him with the many resources and opportunities on the UW–Madison campus. On a typical day, Thao hops on his bicycle and zips to class, the library, or the lab. Here he dedicates much of his time to researching water-quality treatment systems, Some of this research is for his courses and some is for the SciMed Graduate Research Scholars program.
Thao says his interest in research grew as he learned more about what it entails. In the process, he realized that graduate school was a good fit for him.
“While my original motivation for returning to school was financial, I’ve come to really enjoy the learning and research process,” he says. “Wonderful professors in the soil science department—especially Doug Soldat and Alfred Hartemink—stoked my intellectual interests by enabling me to engage with graduate students. In the process, I learned about all the funding mechanisms for grad school, which made this a possibility for me.”
Financial and personal support
In addition to benefiting from the financial support of scholarships for adult students, Thao appreciates the other types of support such awards represent. When he faces challenges, he often remembers how others in his family and the community have believed in him and encouraged him to keep chasing his academic and career goals.
“My wife’s encouragement has been crucial to my success,” Thao says. “There have been times when I felt like calling it quits, and her support reminded me why we decided to go through this process in the first place. She has also been able to pick up the slack when my family has needed it.”
Thao admits that balancing school, work, and family is a challenge. When he has an important obligation at school the same day one of his kids has an orchestra concert, things can get especially tricky. At times like this, he does his best to put the situation in perspective.
“I try to remember that, at the end of all of this, I should be earning more than I was. This means I should be able to support my kids’ needs better in the future,” he says. “I’m also learning a bunch of things about the college process that I want to pass on to my kids.”
Plus, Thao hopes that earning an advanced degree from UW–Madison, despite significant challenges and sacrifices, helps his children strive for greatness in their own lives.
For more information about scholarships and awards for returning adult students, students who are parents, and other nontraditional learners, see the ACSSS scholarship webpage. To learn more about the services ACSSS offers or to make an appointment with a career counselor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.