Going back to school to get her undergraduate degree in her late 20s, Carly Major had different goals for her educational journey. She vowed to be a flicker of light.
“I came here into this body, into this life, with a purpose,” Major says. “My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and there’s a lot of darkness and a lot of loss that goes deep to my core. I’ve tried to view myself as bringing a light and bringing hope that we can do things in a different way.”
As she graduates in May from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a degree in health promotions and healthy equity, Major plans to pursue her long-range goal of opening up a healing center for individuals from diverse backgrounds.
Major, Christine Gerbitz and Danielle Tolzmann received the Outstanding Undergraduate Returning Adult Student Award at an event on April 26. The award recognizes the perseverance and leadership of returning adult students and is sponsored by the Division of Continuing Studies’ Adult Career and Special Student Services, Division of Student Life and the American Association of University Women.
Finding support to be the light
Major started her academic journey at Northwestern University in biomedical engineering, until she took a medical leave of absence for a “mental, emotional and spiritual break.” She traveled the world to do some soul searching. Major became a business owner, ski instructor and divemaster until she decided that going back to school to get her degree would help her find focus.
But returning to school as an adult did not come without obstacles.
“I think quite frankly, a big challenge in coming back to school is my disillusionment with the way education is these days,” she says. “There’s a very strong disconnect between what I consider to be learning and what is provided at institutions, so learning how to cope with expectations and keep my sight on the future and supplementing my need for deep, constructive critical thinking has been really difficult.”
She found what she needed with the BS in health promotions and health equity. UW–Madison gave her exposure to resources that helped her succeed, including the McBurney Disability Resource Center’s Study and Learning Skills Program (SLSS) and the Writing Center. These services inspired Major to become an advocate for her peers and classmates.
Living her dream of teaching
In the mid-1980s, Christine Gerbitz was enrolled at Immanuel Lutheran College. She met her husband, got married and thought she could finish her degree at UW–Whitewater. However, her credits didn’t transfer, and she didn’t want to start over.
After raising five children and pursuing a career in banking, Gerbitz felt like her skills were not being utilized to their full potential. She took a strengths assessment through the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Leadership Institute that pointed toward teaching. She decided it was time to return to school, but none of the colleges she applied to accepted her credits, except for UW–Madison.
“A retired UW professor, Dan Schaefer, suggested I apply to UW–Madison. I thought I would hit the same dead end. I didn’t,” she says, “It seems doors have just kept opening ever since. The Teacher Pledge program started my junior year. I have been blessed with scholarships. I will graduate knowing my schooling will be paid off in, at the most, four years.”
Throughout her education journey, Gerbitz overcame internal struggles with the fear of not being a good teacher or smart enough to succeed. COVID-19 was also an unexpected challenge, but as difficult as online learning was, it saved her from a daily 80-minute commute to campus for class.
“Knowing that I am going to finally realize my childhood dream of becoming a teacher keeps me going,” she says. “The relationships I am building along the way are priceless.”
After graduation, she hopes to work as an English as a second language (ESL) teacher in the Madison area.
‘It’s not a job or career, I’ll be impacting lives’
For Danielle Tolzmann, her educational path is an accumulation of events dating back more than 20 years. She used to distribute federal grants to local programs at a state agency, which was where she learned about nonprofit work. Years later at another job, she was picking up letters from an office printer and came across a slide that read: Find what you love, and do that.
“ Those words stayed with me,” she says. “Jump ahead several years, our son was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (shared with his permission). I never set out to become an advocate. But that’s what he needed, so I did.”
Although Tolzmann got involved with several local autism organizations, she realized there was more to learn. When she started at UW–Madison, she was taking care of her family, working full time, running an organization and serving as the Autism Society president. Letting go of some commitments became a stepping stone on her path to something greater.
“There was a lot of inner conflict. All these things mattered a great deal to me and having to choose some activities over others was extremely difficult,” she adds. “On the other side of that experience though, I think it solidified my commitment and brought into focus what I really want next.”
With her degree in community and nonprofit leadership, and certificates in disability rights and services and public policy, she hopes to impact policy making for the disability community.
“It’s not a job or career, I’ll be impacting lives,” she says. “Letting go of other roles I cared deeply about reminded me that I did not do so without purpose. I gave them up so I could devote myself to something with the potential of having a greater impact.”
Giving back to the community
All three award recipients display leadership and service within their communities.
Gerbitz was involved as a 4-H leader and coached the Dairy Quiz Bowl teams, but she had to give up these activities to focus on her education. Distance from UW–Madison also put a damper on her campus involvement, but after moving closer, she has joined the Friends of Cottage Grove Library and will start a secret sister exchange among the women in her church congregation.
With her lived experience and self-confidence, Major was able to be a leader and advocate for herself and her peers. She adds, “Being able to fight and win for remote accommodations and having another student benefit from it and telling me how grateful they are means a lot to me.”
Another one of Major’s classes is about mental health and prevention, and one of her classmates reached out to let her know how much her transparency about these difficult topics meant to her.
“I try to be authentic and honest and promote a deeper level of thought, and a lot of the time, it feels like it’s desired or appreciated by people,” she adds. “Getting the feedback that people are listening and I’ve touched some of them means a lot to me.”
Tolzmann used to be that person who disappeared into the background and supported others, but after her son’s diagnosis, she became an advocate and created an online resource fair for families dealing with a new diagnosis.
“Making the shift from being invisible to stepping forward, taking on a community gap and filling it was a big change in how I thought about my own capacity and is one of my proudest moments of personal growth, next to coming to college,” she adds.
For more information and resources for returning adult students, see UW–Madison’s Adult Career and Special Student Services program page.