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UW-Madison honors returning adult undergraduate students

May 21, 2009

Two young women who have shown perseverance and determination in pursing their bachelor’s degrees have been named recipients of this year’s two University of Wisconsin–Madison Outstanding Undergraduate Returning Adult Student Awards.

For Maria Jesson, a native of Brazil, earning her bachelor’s degree has been a 13-year journey — or a fast-paced whirlwind — as Jesson acted as breadwinner, single mother, classroom volunteer and college student. The other recipient, Wisconsin native Jenna Shelley, became motivated to pursue higher education after a series of events revealed that the global community could use more assistance.

If you hopped on a Madison Metro bus during the last 10 years, you’ve likely been greeted by Jesson, one of the drivers.

When you first spot the slender Jesson behind the steering wheel, you most likely find it hard to believe that this young woman could maneuver the bulky vehicle through narrow streets and tight turns.

But Jesson does it with finesse during summer, spring, fall and winter — just as she has performed deftly in her other two careers for the last 10 years: nurturing her 12-year-old son as a single parent and studying psychology at UW–Madison.

Jesson will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in August. “I think I’ve proved I can juggle priorities,” Jesson, who hopes to become a psychiatrist, says.

“My mother, who still lives in Brazil, inspired me to work on a degree. She was a single parent and worked two jobs to support my brothers and myself. Yet I had a great life; she even managed to pay for English classes for me when I was 7 — way before English was offered in the regular school,” she says.

“Another wonderful part of my life was going to the family farm every other weekend and during summers. I remember my father waking us up at 5 a.m. to milk the cows, which I didn’t like at the time. Now I appreciate my father’s lesson about hard work.

“At the farm, I also climbed trees and learned to drive large vehicles which is why I don’t mind driving a bus,” she says, adding that her career at Madison Metro even helped her meet her future husband. “He noticed me around campus and looked elated and surprised when he saw it was me who was driving the bus. That’s how we met.”

Shelley grew up on a little farm near the small northern Wisconsin town of Tomahawk, and she’s seen many peaks and valleys in the 10 years since she left there. But she says she wouldn’t change any part of her life because it’s these varied and sometimes challenging experiences that have brought her to UW–Madison as an adult student studying cultural anthropology.

These troubling situations — and how Shelley is reacting positively to them — also brought her to the attention of the Outstanding Undergraduate Returning Adult Student Award selection committee.

“I’ve always sort of been a misfit,” Shelley says, noting that she had the opportunity to work daily with some of the “misfits” of society when she was employed at a thoroughbred racetrack in Lexington, Ky. “Many of these people had really difficult lives, but they worked so hard and were so kind to me. They taught me so much about what’s truly important in life — they really touched my heart.”

Another experience that eventually led Shelley to her studies was living in South Korea with her now-former husband, who was in the U.S. military. “To occupy myself, I volunteered to teach in an orphanage. Before I started I had many preconceived ideas of what orphans might be like, but they were amazing — beautiful, intelligent, well-adjusted — they just blew me away.”

Then Shelley noticed a darker part of the world: She saw victims of sex trafficking — young girls forced into prostitution to work in brothels near the U.S. military base. “It really upset me — it still does. That’s why I decided to go back to school. I couldn’t live the rest of my life and not do anything. I needed to take some action.” Shelley wrote letters, made phone calls, and when she got back to the U.S. she contacted government officials to bring their attention to the global issue.

“But I absolutely loved Korea: the people, the culture, the food. I loved living there — it’s a gorgeous country. I can’t wait to go back and visit. I’m actually just finishing up a Korean contemporary literature and film class.”

Sometimes working three to four jobs at a time to make ends meet, Shelley is excited to graduate in December. She is considering earning a MBA so that one day she can head a nonprofit organization that focuses on social justice issues or the education of women.

The UW–Madison Adult and Student Services Center (ASSC) and the Offices of the Dean of Students support these awards. ASSC offers 23 other scholarships for adults who are returning to campus after a significant break in their educations. These awards and their 2009 recipients are:

  • Barbara Weston Corry and Joe Corry Scholarship: Susanna Fishlove, Rose Manjon
  • Alma Baron Second Chance for Women Scholarship: Gisela Newbegin, Patricia O’Kane
  • Nancy W. Denney Memorial Scholarship: Carlos Lozano
  • Bernice D. Kuney Scholarship: Tasha Gamerdinger, Constance Mudore
  • Participatory Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) Scholarship Laura Berkner Murphy, Ashley Robinson
  • American Association of University Women, Madison Branch Scholarship: Gloria Palencia
  • University League Scholarship: Martin McNamara
  • Cynthia McCreary Holbrook Youmans University League Scholarship: Denise Contreras
  • Stuart Daily Seeds of Learning Scholarship: Sharon Beauregard.

Osher Institute Reentry Scholarships, supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation of San Francisco, were awarded to: Jacqueline Buleje, Megan Collins, Danielle Ellis, Timothy Fish, Molinda Henry, Amy Hermes, Josephine Horton, Sally Jackson, Katherine Lambrou, Tamara Laskowski and Lori Roberts.

For more information, visit this site or call 608-263-6960.