Event showcases returning adult students and their hard-won achievements

Great Hall at Memorial union -- people sitting at tables and smiling at the stage

It’s spring and time to celebrate! While thousands of graduates and their families and friends flock to Camp Randall for commencement at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a smaller, yet still mighty, group of Badgers and their supporters gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of UW–Madison’s returning adult students.

“All of you in your own unique ways are transforming our campus,” said Martin Rouse, associate dean and director at Continuing Studies, at the 43rd annual Outstanding Adult Student Celebration and Reception on April 24. “We can all count ourselves very fortunate that you chose UW–Madison.”

Memorial Union’s Great Hall was abuzz with families and young children, smiling friends, proud faculty and staff and of course Bucky Badger, on hand to congratulate students and pose for photos.

Rouse commented on the diversity of returning adult students and the challenges that they overcome going back to school: “We have students dealing with illness, working long hours, volunteering their time, providing care and comfort at their homes and in clinics and hospitals. We have individual starting organizations, mothers and fathers raising children, veterans protecting our hard-won democratic privilege. We have people from Wisconsin and students who have started their journeys in places far from here.”

Let’s meet a few of these outstanding students who attended the reception and took to the stage to be honored by a cheering crowd.

Getting Badger Ready

Badger Ready program manager Autumn Sanchez recognized students and graduates in the Badger Ready program, a pathway to degree completion for those facing barriers to transfer admission at UW–Madison.

Sanchez read a letter from Signe Kilmer, who said Badger Ready helped “soften my heart and open my mind to the possibilities of the future.” After abandoning a traditional path to a degree in 2006 due to financial instability, lack of support and mental illness, Kilmer got an associate degree in dental hygiene and practiced for seven years. She transferred to UW–Madison through Badger Ready and graduated with a bachelor’s in art history. Today, she’s pursuing her dream career in the museum field.

After leaving Northwestern University without a degree in 2016, Eligh Alvarez joined the Air National Guard, which he says taught him the skills needed for personal growth and success in school. Entering UW–Madison through Badger Ready, Alvarez studied computer science and earned his bachelor’s. He still serves as an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the Guard.

Sanchez says there are 10 more Badger Ready student’s who’ve applied for spring 2024 graduation, and Rouse added, “We’re very proud of all of the students who’ve participated in Badger Ready.”

Scholarships: ‘catalysts for achieving dreams’

The evening continued with Rouse and others thanking generous donors who’ve made it possible to award scholarships to returning adult students before acknowledging this year’s recipients. Here are some of them:

Stephan Blanz smiling next to Bucky Badger
Stephan Blanz

As Stephan Blanz said, “The scholarships that you provide are not just monetary donations, they’re the catalysts for achieving dreams.” From a family of immigrants, Blanz served in the U.S. military, sustaining a traumatic brain injury while in Afghanistan. After eight years of honorable service, he embarked on a healthcare career, starting at community college, moving through UW–Madison with a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering and now pursuing medical school. His ultimate goal is to leave a lasting impact on health care and his community.


Otis Harris and Penelope with Bucky Badger
Otis Harris, Jr., and Penelope

Otis Harris, Jr., brought his 5-year-old daughter Penelope to the stage to receive his award, and she stole the show with her smile and spunk. Harris and Penelope received a two-generation scholarship. He said the funding will help him provide customized lessons to Penelope, who loves music and art but has severe hearing impairments. Harris graduated from the UW Odyssey Project in 2009 and is now making his way to a degree in business while juggling family, ministry and multiple jobs.


Alice Owiti and her guests with Bucky Badger
Alice Owiti (center)

Originally from Kenya, Alice Owiti recently became a U.S. citizen. Alice works more than 90 hours a week as a caregiver to provide for herself and family in Kenya, including her two sons. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology and will now pursue a nursing degree. “I consider Wisconsin and Madison to be my community,” she said. “It has given me a second chance, and I can show my kids you can make it. Never give up, no matter what.”


Shannon Stege and guest with Bucky Badger
Shannon Stege (center)

“Most teachers my age are making plans for their upcoming retirement, but my plans bring me here to be a special education teacher. After a series of unfortunate life events, I find myself starting again” said Shannon Stege, who commutes 1.5 hours to campus. More than 30 years ago, she received a bachelor’s from UW–Madison in dairy science and bacteriology. After homeschooling her children, she took a job as a special education assistant. Inspired by that experience, she is completing a master’s in special education with certification and plans to return to rural Dodge County as an elementary school special education teacher.


Gabriela with Bucky Badger
Gabriela Zumwalt

Gabriela Zumwalt grew up in La Paz, Bolivia. She moved to the U.S. when she was 19, spent a few semesters at Madison College learning English, then while working full time graduated with her associate degree. She’s now working on her bachelor’s in psychology at UW–Madison. The awards event made her grateful to be around other returning adult students: “It’s nice to be in the room with people my age. I’m really proud of everyone here. This has inspired me and helps me continue because I can see myself in everybody.”


Online learner spotlight

Rouse took a moment to acknowledge students who’ve learned and earned degrees online. UW–Madison offers flexible master’s and doctoral degrees through the Professional Degrees & Certificates program. And this year marks the inaugural class of graduates from UW–Madison Online, a slate of fully online bachelor’s degrees for returning adult students, including these graduates:

Rachel Kane with Bucky Badger
Rachel Kane

Rachel Kane describes herself as a mom, wife and project coordinator on a fast-paced team in mergers, acquisitions and divestitures – all while pursuing her online bachelor’s in business administration with a focus on human resources. She added, “One of the greatest rewards is going back to school with four teens in my house. We get to commiserate about homework and plan out schedules so we can earn our degrees in four years. This scholarship doesn’t just help me, but helps the three of us that will be in college next year. My whole family thanks you.” Kane and her husband traveled from the Twin Cities to attend the reception.


Amanda Sauri and guests with Bucky Badger
Amanda Sauri (third from left)

The audience shared a heartfelt round of applause for Amanda Sauri when she came up to the stage and announced that next month she will be three years sober. She heartily thanked her foster parents for helping her stay dedicated to her vision of completing college. She shared that UW–Madison pushed her toward growth as a student, parent and an individual in recovery. She’s looking forward to completing her long-standing educational goal and providing a better life for her family.



‘Thank you for believing in me’

To round out the evening, UW–Madison Dean of Students Christina Olstad took the stage to announce the Outstanding Undergraduate Returning Adult Student Awards, given to students whose unusual determination and perseverance have enabled them to pursue academic goals and contribute to the community by demonstrated leadership and/or service.

“These students pushed themselves to perform at the highest levels, managing school, community and family. They all faced various barriers, but they share a strong belief in the power of education,” Olstad said.

Nominees for this award were Tsurit Barhama, Joseph Rausch and James Spoden. Finalists included Qianna Loomis, Rebecca Parmentier and Hollie Wierschke.

And the winners:

Dora Aranda with Bucky Badger
Dora Aranda

Dora Aranda is a mother of three, former business owner and student. After a car accident that almost took her life and caused traumatic brain injury, she moved from California to Wisconsin. She earned an associate degree from Madison Area Technical College and is now a biochemistry major at UW–Madison. She’s passionate about making a difference and looks forward to solving environmental and public health problems. Aranda also hopes to expose more women and people of underrepresented backgrounds to STEM fields. She added, “My dream ever since I was a little girl was to be a scientist. I can’t wait to be in the industry. Thank you for noticing me and taking the time to listen to my story.”


Jennifer Halvorson with guest and Bucky Badger
Jennifer Halvorson

“Wow, it’s been a trip,” said Jennifer Halvorson. “Ten years ago if you would have told me I’d be graduating from UW–Madison in two weeks, I would have laughed at you.” At 19, Halvorson dropped out of college at the encouragement of her partner then found herself supporting that partner through opiate addiction. When her partner chose addiction over her, she picked up the pieces to pursue surgical technology at Madison Area Technical College. After working for eight years in that field and obtaining her nursing assistant certification, she made the decision to pursue a nursing degree at UW–Madison. “Thank you for believing in me and giving me a chance,” she added. “On, Wisconsin!”


Norman Canestorp and guests with Bucky Badger
Norman Canestorp

In 2018, Norman Canestorp was laid off from his telecommunications job. Despite a 15-year break from school, he came back to complete his bachelor’s degree, starting through the Badger Ready program. Managing a full-time job while attending classes, Norman also volunteered with the national Student Speech-Language Hearing Association. He will be pursuing graduate studies in the future while continuing to volunteer. Norman said, “To my fellow students, you never fail to humble and inspire me, and I’m so proud and grateful to be one of you.”

Check out our Q&A with these three outstanding students. To read more student stories from an incredibly inspiring evening, see the program booklet. For more information on being a returning adult student at UW–Madison, visit Adult Career and Special Student Services.