Returning adult students gather to celebrate perseverance in their educational journeys

Adult student and her toddler son give Bucky Badger a high-five at event

This year’s UW–Madison Outstanding Adult Student Reception was the definition of an inspirational, feel-good event. Donors, faculty and staff, students and guests filled the Memorial Union Great Hall with laughter and smiles as they gathered on April 26 to celebrate returning adult students and their determination to pursue their dreams.

Martin Rouse, associate dean and director of Adult Career and Special Student Services, along with academic advisors and staff, gave out more than 70 certificates to students who received scholarships and awards. Former Badger Ready program students who had successfully transferred to or graduated from UW–Madison were also given certificates.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi delivered opening remarks, reminiscing about his own nontraditional path through higher education.

“When I was 17 years old I dropped out of high school. I was going to be a rockstar,” said Parisi. After realizing this dream wasn’t going to work out, Parisi finished high school and attended classes at Madison College. He later graduated from UW–Madison at the age of 30 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

“We need people to travel different paths,” he said. “We can’t solve the challenges we face if we’re all coming through just one place and we’ve had the exact same experience.”

This year’s honorees traveled many paths and had a variety of experiences. They included students from West Africa, Colombia and England. They shared about the personal obstacles they faced, including illness, trauma, homelessness and raising their families as single parents.

Guests celebrated every single student as they walked up to the stage to receive their certificates. Family members, partners and friends watched with glee while recording videos. Advisors shared teary-eyed embraces with students who thanked them onstage. Many students gave short speeches thanking their supporters and reflecting on the challenges they’d overcome.

Student John Vetterli summed up his journey back to school saying, “I graduated high school in 2004. Just shy of 19 years later I’ll be getting my degree.”

The event culminated with the presentation of the 2023 Outstanding Undergraduate Returning Adult Student Award to Christine Fifarek and Robert Hall. (See an article on Fifarek and Hall’s stories: Returning adult students overcome obstacles to earn awards – and degrees).The following is a collection of just a few of the many memorable students who attended the event. To see the full list of award recipients and read their stories, see the 2023 Program Booklet.

Student in blazer and formal dress stands beside her partner, both smile
Keerun Ismail (right) set the tone for the reception by beginning the first student speech of the night with a bold statement: “The story of the adult college student is a testimony to the human spirit.” Ismail is 37 years old and a first-generation college student. After graduating she intends to pursue a master’s degree in counseling psychology, inspired by her own journey with overcoming mental health struggles.
Adult student squatting beside her toddler son tickles his stomach as he laughs, smiling into the camera
Amanda Sauri brought her son onstage to receive her certificate and shared that she would be celebrating two years of sobriety in May. Sauri is working towards a bachelor’s degree in psychology and looking forward to becoming part of a small percentage of former foster kids that graduate from college.
Student in graduation regalia stands at a podium presenting before a large audience of adult students and guests
Badger Ready student, Signe Kilmer, wore her full graduation regalia including cap, gown and tassel to the celebration. She told the audience, “Truthfully, this ceremony is the only important graduation ceremony to me because without Badger Ready I would not have this degree in the first place.”
Smiling student speaks at podium in UW-Madison Memorial Union
Sean Harry greeted his mother who watched the celebration online from far-away London at nearly midnight. Harry is a doctoral student in educational psychology. In the future, he’d like to use his education to support young adults living in poverty and marginalized communities who’ve experienced complex trauma.
Student surrounded by 3 guests poses for selfie with Badger Ready certificate
Stacy H. Tran is a first-generation student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education studies and a certificate in Asian American studies. Tran’s journey at UW–Madison began with Badger Ready where she met her former advisor Ace Hilliard. She thanked him from the stage saying, “Ace has been with me through thick and thin, fought for me in ways I didn’t know were possible and affirmed me in ways that I carry with me everyday through campus.”