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December 19, 2008

From Career to College and Back: IS Grad Reflects on Journey

Cliff Zevenbergen

When he began his studies at UW-Eau Claire in spring 2006, Cliff Zevenbergen's life was far different from the life of the typical incoming undergraduate student.

For starters, he had a 16-year career in information technology with an international company under his belt. He had a son in college in California and a teenage daughter who made the move from the West Coast to the Midwest with her parents so her father could pursue a college degree. He also had a wife who, after 20 years of owning her own business, was going to work for someone else to support the family while her husband furthered his education.

Zevenbergen, originally from Baldwin, Wis., had been laid off by his employer when a corporate reorganization resulted in his job being moved overseas. He found he couldn't be hired for another position within the company because he didn't have a college degree. That's when Zevenbergen, with the support of his family, made the decision to move back to the Midwest to attend UW-Eau Claire.

"Not having a degree was a large part of my being laid off and an even bigger part of not being able to find another position within the company," said Zevenbergen, a first-generation college student who will graduate summa cum laude.

While during his studies at UW-Eau Claire he shared with his classmates his wealth of experiences from the corporate world, Zevenbergen said from the time he arrived on campus he also learned from younger, traditional-age students.

"I thoroughly enjoyed working with the 'traditional' students," he said. "I have told many recruiters that I learned as much or more from them as I did in the classroom."

At UW-Eau Claire, Zevenbergen was active in Sigma Gamma Zeta II, a student organization that recognizes the academic achievements of returning adult students. Working with the organization allowed him to encourage other nontraditional students through their unique challenges.

Now, as he prepares to re-enter life in the corporate world – this time with his bachelor's degree in hand – Zevenbergen has a few more words of advice for other adults thinking about following in his footsteps.

"I hope that anyone reading this who is considering returning to college would take those first steps and check out the campus and programs at the college or university they have access to. The experience is wonderful."

More on Cliff Zevenbergen

Future plans: Following graduation my wife and I will be moving to the Milwaukee area, where I will be working for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance. One of the main reasons I selected Northwestern Mutual was because of the long-term opportunities the company offers. I see it as a company where I can work for the long term and have considerable opportunity for career advancement.

My wife and I have made it a long-term goal to sponsor a scholarship for nontraditional students at UW-Eau Claire. We hope that it can be used to encourage other nontrads to experience what I have been blessed to participate in.

Unique aspects of his UW-Eau Claire experience: I came to UW-Eau Claire after more than 16 years with a very large, global conglomerate. In the various positions I held with that firm, I did database design, data analysis, web design and technical support on cancer treatment equipment. I was essentially doing a job that I am now being trained for. As part of that job, I also got to experience international travel and business while working with some of the world’s leaders in the oncology field.

I think my background gave me a unique perspective in coming into the IS program at UW-Eau Claire. I hope I was able to share those experiences with my fellow students. I know that the experiences were valuable for me and helped with many assignments.

What he liked most about his UW-Eau Claire experience: This one is easy. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the “traditional” students. I have told many recruiters that I learned as much or more from them as I did in the classroom. I have had the opportunity to meet many very talented and intelligent individuals. It has been a huge blessing to be at UW-Eau Claire, to work with the other students, and it is an honor to graduate with them.

Highlights of life at UW-Eau Claire: There are so many. I have to say my first day was a highlight. I was scared to death and excited at the same time. I joke about how my abacus was no match for algebra and that the students in my astronomy class were expecting me to have a signed sketch from Galileo, but it wasn’t funny those first few days. Oddly enough, I started learning from “traditional” students that first day. It was something that scared me then, but I came to really enjoy it and ultimately looked for opportunities to experience it.

Then there was the panic attack when I took my first test. It’s really hard to do deep breathing exercises when you’re sitting in one of those tight little desks with the table attached to the chair trying to be quiet. As I remember it, I didn’t pass out and got an A-.

I think a highlight for any nontraditional student is the “Why are you here” question. I know I always enjoyed it. Nontrads are excited to be here and generally like to talk about how they got here. The question comes in a lot of forms throughout the years. A young man once asked me if I was taking a class “just for fun.” (I was in calculus -- I don’t think so.) Sometimes students apologized for asking and occasionally a curious professor would ask.

Another highlight has to be working with and getting to be around the “traditional” students on a daily basis. When you aren’t involved with a group of people, whether the division is age, race, religion or whatever, I think it is easy to form stereotypes. For me, I envisioned the average college student as uncaring about the world, focused on social activity rather than education and “things that mattered,” and uninvolved. The unfortunate thing about stereotypes is that they almost always have elements of truth, and there certainly are people like that in our world and on this campus. What I learned is that my stereotype was very wrong (a generally normal response when you get the opportunity to be involved with a group you haven’t experienced before). I saw a huge majority of people who were very informed about the world around them. They weren’t afraid to stand up for what they believed in, and even though I didn’t always agree with their position, I was thrilled to see them stand up for it. The typical student was none of the things I expected.

I have also very much enjoyed working with Sigma Gamma Zeta II to support nontraditional students on campus. I have enjoyed the opportunities it created to encourage other nontraditional students to keep going or to consider something new, like an internship. My experience at UW-Eau Claire has been fantastic, and I hope all nontrads can experience it the same way.

Proudest college accomplisments: Meeting my personal academic goals is definitely something I am proud of. I set a goal to graduate with a 3.80 or higher GPA. Everything is on track for that goal to be met and exceeded by a good amount.

Surviving is always a good accomplishment.

Advice for incoming students: College is hard work but worth every bit you put into it. Don’t accept mediocrity from yourself or those around you, and don’t accept “good enough.”

Learn what your resources are and use them to their full extent at every opportunity. That means your advisers, professors, the library, other students and anything else you can think of.

Have fun. Enjoy your time here. Work hard, then play hard.

And if you really want to be ahead of the other students, all of them, from all time, figure out what a Blugold is.

Source: UW-Eau Claire News Bureau