Returning adult students overcome obstacles to earn awards – and degrees

Christine and her daughter sitting on a bench with her wife standing behind them, all smiling

Sometimes, people not only persist despite being discouraged – they break through barriers and thrive.

Christine Fifarek was told as a teenager that she didn’t belong in college. She didn’t listen. After spending a decade trying different careers, she joined the Army and became a licensed practical nurse. This May, as a first-generation college student at age 36, Fifarek will receive her BS in Nursing from the University of Wisconsin–Madison as her wife and daughter cheer for her.

“Obtaining my BSN is just the start of an impactful legacy that I hope to leave in this world, for my daughter, her children and so on,” Fifarek said.

Robert Hall, 36, also lacked support early on for his education. In fact, he faced a difficult childhood and found himself in trouble with the law at a young age. He didn’t give up. Hall earned his associate degree from UW–Milwaukee at Waukesha. This May, he’ll graduate from UW–Madison with a double major in history and genetics and genomics. In the fall, he’ll head to Stanford for a PhD program.

Robert Hall standing behind a podium giving a presentation
Robert Hall, presenting his research at Promega as a DOORS Scholarship winner.

“I returned to education to transform myself intellectually but also to try to do something to benefit the world,” Hall said.

For their exceptional efforts, Hall and Fifarek each received an Outstanding Undergraduate Returning Adult Student Award from UW–Madison.

The university’s Adult Career and Special Student Services recognizes the determination and leadership of returning adult undergraduate students with scholarships and awards. Hall and Fifarek were joined by fellow students, families, staff and faculty at the Memorial Union on April 26 to celebrate in a formal ceremony.

“Each year, we are incredibly impressed by our UW–Madison returning adult students, what they accomplish academically and what they teach us about perseverance and courage,” said Martin Rouse, associate dean and director at UW–Madison Continuing Studies. “It’s an honor to be able to acknowledge their efforts and contributions with these awards.”

‘Proud of how far I have come’

Fifarek left home immediately at 18 and did enroll in college, but lacking support and funding, she dropped out. Joining the Army gave her a place where she was surrounded by people who finally believed in her and had high expectations for what she could accomplish.

Christine Fifarek in her white lab coat, standing outside and smiling
Christine Fifarek

She first served in a medical detachment in Colorado, where she attended school part-time. She was then stationed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, taking care of veterans. “It was an honor to care for those who served. Experiencing the comradery shared by people who serve in the military meant a lot to me,” she said of the experience.

The Army provided Fifarek with support she was lacking, but she found even more of it when she came out as a queer woman in her 20s and married the love of her life. She credits her wife and her 6-year-old daughter with being her main support system while in nursing school, along with close friends she’s made in her program.

In addition to her six years of active duty in the military, Fifarek continues to serve her community. She’s a Girl Scout leader for her daughter’s troop. She’s also pioneered programs as an advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community. She’s on the committee for the McFarland, Wisconsin, Pride Festival and organized the village’s first Pride Parade.

Her accomplishments haven’t come without challenges, like balancing her time as a busy mom and student as well as transitioning from military to civilian life. But she connected with her military life through the VA Learning Opportunities Residency (VALOR) at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital and kept herself grounded by spending time with her wife and daughter and even growing what she hopes will be a “farmette” in her yard.

Christine Fifarek and fellow medical students standing in front of a medflight helicopter, sharing the Wisconsin "W"
Christine Fifarek, second from right.

An honor student through her studies at UW–Madison, Fifarek participated in a research project to study how expressive writing could reduce internalized anti-trans negativity and create a more positive and affirming identity. She recently accepted a job at MercyHealth, Janesville, in the critical care department (SCU- special care unit) and hopes to move to the ICU as soon as there is an opening. Ultimately, she plans to earn her Doctor of Nursing Practice and eventually her PhD in Nursing Research so she can contribute to improving critical care and the nursing practice in general.

“I’m incredibly proud of how far I have come and the support system that I have built for myself,” she said. “If 16-year-old me could just see me now, she would be in awe of the life that I have made for myself. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

‘Grateful for everyone who has helped me’

During his adolescence, Hall faced poverty and instability that manifested in his incarceration for nonviolent felonies. While incarcerated, he read philosophy and literature, seeking to comprehend his chaotic world. Education seemed to be the key.

Entering college changed his life. After excelling at UWM at Waukesha – even speaking at his associate degree graduation ceremony – Hall overcame an incredibly challenging year that included homelessness to persevere in completing his bachelor’s at UW–Madison.

Robert Hall, standing on a bride in Costa Rica
Robert Hall in Costa Rica with the Banking Animal Biodiversity study abroad program led by Dr. Francisco Pelegri.

While at the university, Hall bloomed – academically and as a leader. He excelled in his classes, won numerous awards and scholarships and spent time traveling – to CalTech, Costa Rica and Ghana – for presentations and research.

“After years of hiding my past, I made more progress when I finally decided to live openly about my experiences, and this honesty guides my future,” he said.

Hall shares his experience being incarcerated and hopes to support others who have been in the criminal justice system to find life-changing educational experiences. He even received funding to start Liberated Intellects (LI), an organization to aid formerly incarcerated people in higher education. He hopes LI will foster fellowship and confidence.

Prior to heading to Stanford in the fall, Hall will spend 18 weeks doing biomedical research with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. As a PhD student at Stanford, Hall hopes to study evolutionary biology and genetics, ultimately to influence animal conservation and become a professor.

Hall said what drives him is a combination of love for learning and a desire to do something positive in the world. And he wouldn’t be where he is without the community of support surrounding him, including staff, scientists and deans from UW–Madison as well as philanthropic organizations. He added, “I’m eternally grateful for everyone who has helped me. It’s hard to put into words how awesome that is.”

Advice for returning adult students       

Despite challenges, Fifarek and Hall both encourage adults to return to school if that is their dream. Importantly, they emphasize the need for self-care and self-confidence.

headshot of Robert Hall, smiling
Robert Hall

“I would say focus on creating a balance in your life when you return to school. Focus on your priorities and what’s important to you,” Fifarek said. “When I came to UW–Madison, I had high expectations for myself. I wanted to be more involved, but it just didn’t happen because I kept weekends and evenings reserved for family. As I’m about to graduate, I realize that I did exactly what I could do without stressing myself out.”

Hall added, “Be confident in yourself. Realize that you are coming in with way more skills than you give yourself credit for. The breadth of your experiences and the soft skills you developed go an incredibly long way. It may not seem like it, but these life skills that you have are very important.”

Congratulations again to Fifarek and Hall as well to these nominees and finalists for the Outstanding Undergraduate Returning Adult Student Award:

  • Annie Lewis
  • Erin Vranas
  • Meg Mercy
  • Amy Bartosiak
  • Cisseba Kaba
  • Hezouwe Walada
  • Jaime Wendt
  • John Vetterli
  • Marcus Baker

See UW–Madison’s Adult Career and Special Student Services website for more information and resources for returning adult students.