Returning to college as an adult is like racing along the twists and turns of the Mississippi River in a kayak.

Gretchen Erdmann-Hermans, flanked by her children, compared returning to college as an adult to racing along the twists and turns of the Mississippi River in a kayak. (All photos UEDA Photography)

So said Gretchen Erdmann-Hermans, who accepted an award at the Adult Student Scholarships and Awards Reception on April 25. Despite overwhelming challenges in her personal life, Erdmann-Hermans navigated the rapids to earn a degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her two young children sometimes tagged along to campus tutoring sessions when she didn’t have childcare, and they also accompanied her to the podium at Union South’s Varsity Room.

“There is no going back after you embark on this journey toward your degree and an independent future where only you determine where you go and how high you’ll rise,” Erdmann-Hermans said.

The reception was hosted by UW-Madison’s Adult Career and Special Student Services to honor nearly 40 adults who overcame obstacles to pursue their dreams of higher education. One by one, they mounted the stage to thank their families, UW-Madison faculty and staff, and donors who provided a financial lifeline through awards and scholarships.

“With your compassion and generosity, we can continue what we’re doing,” said scholarship winner Marcus McMillan, addressing those who funded the Bernard Osher Reentry Scholarship and a dozen others.

Anthony Utrie, who is pursuing a master’s in social work, reminded donors of the return on their investment: “Many lives lived happier and healthier, and graduates who will make positive change in the world.”

Deaf student Tamara Fuerst accepted her award via sign language.

Perspective and wisdom

The students described their struggles to study while raising kids, holding down full-time jobs, or adjusting to a new culture and language. Some limped up the steps on crutches and canes; some held toddlers at the microphone. Deaf student Tamara Fuerst accepted her award via sign language. Clearly, nothing would keep these determined learners from reaching their goals.

Judith Strand, director of Adult Career and Special Student Services, said adult students ‘bring perspective and wisdom and embolden everyone in the classroom.’

“We thank you for coming to the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” said Judith Strand, associate dean and director of Adult Career and Special Student Services, who was honored for her long commitment to returning adult students. “You enrich the environment. You bring perspective and wisdom and embolden everyone in the classroom.”

For all the positive vibes in the packed banquet hall, there will be more hardships for many of these adult students. “The struggle is real to pay for school,” said Krystal Gartley, a single mother who grew up in poverty and is now pursuing her master’s in social work.

So it was fitting that the evening’s last words came from Gretchen Erdmann-Hermans, the award-winner who compared returning to college to kayaking on the Mississippi River. Her inspiring advice to fellow lifelong learners:

“Keep paddling!”