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Community service shapes graduate's career plans

RELEASED: May 12, 2011

Jessica Jesswein
Jessica Jesswein

EAU CLAIRE — Senior Jessica Jesswein was able to cross a few things off her to-do list thanks to the hundreds of hours she has spent volunteering at Eau Claire nonprofit agencies during her years at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Fulfill her required service-learning hours? Check.

Build her resume? Check.

Discover a passion for giving back to the community? Check.

Decide on a major — and find a career path? Check.

"As a freshman I was an elementary education major," said Jesswein, whose parents are both teachers. "But I spent a day in my dad's classroom and realized right away that it wasn't for me. I was undeclared and then a communications major. Nothing felt quite right. But then I got an internship at Western Dairyland, and it changed everything."

The internship, which Jesswein discovered while looking for a rewarding way to fulfill UW-Eau Claire's 30-hour service-learning requirement, involved helping Western Dairyland plan its annual Women's Business Conference.

"I loved it, and for the first time I was 100 percent sure that I knew what I wanted to do for a career," said Jesswein, who had not previously done volunteer work. "I loved giving back, I liked working at a community action organization and I loved planning the event."

Jesswein, a native of Germantown, quickly switched her major and will graduate this month with a bachelor's degree in sociology and a topical minor in event planning. She is now looking for a job in event planning or volunteer coordinating at a nonprofit agency.

With a sociology major and topical minor, she said she was able to focus on the social issues that interest her, while also using the skills she learned in her communications classes. Strong verbal and written communication skills, and an understanding of the news media, are important skills to have when planning events or motivating volunteers, she said.

Western Dairyland asked Jesswein to volunteer just a few hours a week, but she enjoyed her work so much that she offered to do far more. In the end, she spent more than 150 hours helping to plan the business conference.

It was such a positive experience that Jesswein sought opportunities at other agencies in the Eau Claire area. Since connecting with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Wisconsin in fall 2010, she's volunteered 350-plus hours, helping to plan events and coordinate volunteers.

"It's fun and it's exciting," Jesswein said of her volunteer work. "These are real-world experiences. And they've gotten me involved in the community in ways that wouldn't otherwise have happened. I go to Chamber of Commerce events and other places in Eau Claire, and I know people now. I feel connected to people in Eau Claire, and it's a good feeling."

Even more importantly, Jesswein said, her volunteer work has helped prepare her for what she expects will be a long and rewarding career working in the nonprofit field.

Given the limited resources and staff at the nonprofits, her volunteer positions have allowed her to do meaningful work, not just routine tasks often assigned to interns, Jesswein said. For example, she said, she coordinates up to 100 volunteers for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

"I've learned so much," said Jesswein, who is earning six credits for her internship at Big Brothers Big Sisters. "Both Western Dairyland and Big Brothers Big Sisters have let me do a lot of things and have given me so much responsibility. I'm actually planning events and coordinating the volunteers. I'm involved from start to finish so I get to see it all come together."

Most recently, Jesswein has helped Big Brothers Big Sisters plan its Bowl for Kids' Sake events at several western Wisconsin locations. Several of those events have raised record amounts of dollars for the organization, she said.

While she expected her service-learning experience to be meaningful, she said she had no idea it would be so transforming that it would alter her academic and career goals.

"I've had all these great experiences that I probably wouldn't be having if it weren't for service-learning," Jesswein said. "Some people see the service-learning requirement as dorky, but if you take it seriously it can have a huge impact on your life. I had no idea what Eau Claire had to offer until I got involved with these organizations. What I learned from these experiences has been as important to me as what I learned in the classroom. Thanks to service-learning, I discovered a passion that I plan to build a career around."



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