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Blugolds lean on each other to overcome challenges, thrive in college

| Judy Berthiaume

FranChesca Riley, Julianna Tavale and Natalie Hanson came to UW-Eau Claire because of its strong academic programs and beautiful campus.

They stayed at UW-Eau Claire because they found each other.

“We are opposites in many ways, but we also are a lot alike,” Natalie, a psychology major and kinesiology minor from Apple Valley, Minnesota, says of the trio of friends. “We all met and instantly there was a connection.”

Natalie Hanson, FranChesca Riley and Julianna Tavale (from left) say their friendship has helped them get through everything from homesickness to the death of a parent.

Natalie Hanson, FranChesca Riley and Julianna Tavale (from left) say their friendship has helped them get through everything from homesickness to the death of a parent.

Their connection proved to be a lifeline for the three Blugolds as they each struggled to deal with the many curveballs — some not-so-serious and some devastating — that life threw at them during their first years away from home.

FranChesca’s father passed away the summer after her freshman year. Julianna was adjusting to a new relationship. Natalie struggled being away from her family for the first time.

“All of us went through a lot of things during that first year,” says FranChesca, an information systems major and communication minor from Waukesha. “There was a lot that happened back to back, and most of it was unexpected.

“We are all on our own journey, but life was hitting all of us hard. It was one thing after another, but we went through it together.”

All in their tight-knit friend circle thought about leaving UW-Eau Claire that first year, maybe transferring to colleges closer to their families. Julianna thought about going home to earn her degree online.

Given the loss of her father, along with a falling out with friends, FranChesca was certain a fresh start at a new campus would help.

“I was all ready to transfer when I realized that I had everything that I needed here — I had my family right here,” FranChesca says. “These friends were all I needed.”

By the end of their first year, Julianna and Natalie also knew that UW-Eau Claire was where they belonged.

The three Blugolds — along with another close friend who left college for medical reasons — met through UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Beginnings Learning Community, a program that provides academic, social and personal support to multicultural, first-generation or economically disadvantaged students.

Since all Blugolds in the learning community take an introduction to college curriculum class and a philosophy class during their first semester, FranChesca, Julianna and Natalie spent many hours a day together. Without thinking about it, they began seeking each other at the start of their shared classes.

Blugold Beginnings also requires students to attend various campus events, including concerts, speakers, sports and films.

Nervous about going alone or feeling tired after a day of classes, she often dreaded going to the activities, Natalie says.

That changed once the “Webb sisters” — as they dubbed themselves after bonding during a class taught by Martin Webb — began a group chat so they could arrange to go to the events together, Natalie says. The required activities soon became fun, and the group found more and more reasons to spend time together.

High-achieving students in high school, the “Webb sisters” all came to UW-Eau Claire confident that they would be successful in their academics.

It was the social part — the fear of not finding friends or their niche — that worried them most.

“I was struggling,” Natalie says of her early months on campus. “I was excited to be in college, but I also was terrified. I worried about not making friends.”

Through Blugold Beginnings, they found each other.

“Blugold Beginnings has been an amazing experience for a lot of reasons, but especially because it brought all of us together,” says Julianna, a psychology major from St. Joseph, Minnesota. “We all came from different places, lived in different dorms and have different interests and majors, so I don’t think we’d have met without it. And I can’t imagine being here without them.”

“We are like sisters in so many ways,” Natalie says. “We fight, we disagree, but we always find a way to pull things together. We bring out the best in each other.”

The learning community also helped them connect with Jodi Thesing-Ritter, the director of Blugold Beginnings and the “Webb sisters'" second “mom.”

“If we can’t figure out something, we all go to Jodi for help,” Julianna says. “I think the first day of classes this semester all of us were in her office crying before lunch. She always supports us.”

Having an advocate who is well connected on campus and in the community is comforting, the students say.

As students of color on a predominately white campus, having an advocate they can lean on also helps them feel more confident on and off campus, they say.

“There are so many people in Blugold Beginnings from so many different backgrounds that it’s the exact opposite of what I was expecting when I came here,” FranChesca says of the campus climate, adding that while she hopes diversity continues to grow at UW-Eau Claire, she already feels comfortable on campus.

The “Webb sisters” reflect the diversity found among students within the Blugold Beginnings program.

FranChesca is an African-American who grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee. Julianna, who is Samoan, grew up in a small community in central Minnesota. And Natalie, who was born in South Korea, was adopted by a white family and raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis.

While their life experiences before college differed, Blugold Beginnings brought them to the same place.

Now in its 10th year, the Blugold Beginnings Learning Community does many wonderful things, including bringing students from underrepresented or marginalized populations together in ways that help them build community and connections, Thesing-Ritter says.

“Julianna, Natalie and FranChesca’s wonderful friendship says more about the success and importance of this program than any statistic ever could tell us,” Thesing-Ritter says. “They support, encourage and challenge each other in ways that will help them be successful in college and in the future.”

While the friends have never shared a dorm room or an apartment and are on different academic tracks, they are constantly connected.

“We don’t do anything without talking about it,” FranChesca says. “We bounce things off each other, hear each other out and then make our own decisions.”

There is no judging, only support, no matter what happens in their lives, Natalie says.

For example, after her challenging freshman year, FranChesca decided to stay at UW-Eau Claire but to also enlist in the military. During basic training, she broke her hip, much delaying her planned return to campus.

“That was one more unexpected thing that I had to face,” FranChesca says of the injury, which kept her out of college for a year.

Even though she wasn’t physically on campus, it was the “Webb sisters” who got her through her long recovery. They were always reaching out at just the right time with just the right words when she needed their support the most, she says.

“It was hard with her being away,” Julianna says. “But we talked when we could, we sent letters and we got through it together. We are so happy to have her back here this year.”

Though closely connected, each of them is living their own life, Natalie says.

“Some days are a struggle and some days we’re thriving,” FranChesca says of the trio. “I’m not sure if any of us would still be here if we hadn’t met. We’re all living our best life because of our friendship.”

While all three plan to graduate in the next couple of years, they are confident their friendships will continue no matter where life takes them, they say.

“It’s a sisterhood,” Julianna says. “This is 100% a lifelong friendship. We’ve come way too far together to ever give each other up.”

“Let’s just say that if someday they can’t come to my wedding, I’m not getting married,” FranChesca says.

Top photo caption: FranChesca Riley, Natalie Hanson and Julianna Tavale (from left) became fast friends when they met through Blugold Beginnings.