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New grad follows in her mother's footsteps

| Judy Berthiaume

Hannah and Lisa (Knuppel) Olejniczak are proving that there might just be something to the old adage about the apple not falling far from the tree.

After all, when Hannah graduates this spring from UW-Eau Claire — her mother’s alma mater — both will be Blugold alumni, and the mother-daughter duo will have each earned a degree in health care administration.

“Going through the same program my mother did is an absolute blessing,” Hannah says. “I cannot say that I couldn’t have done this program without the help of my mom, but without her I wouldn’t have felt nearly as confident and well prepared to graduate as I do.

“My mom has acted as my mother, but also my mentor. Having her at my graduation will bring my entire education to an amazing finale.”

While she now is eager to begin her career in the health care industry, just a few years ago that’s last place Hannah would have guessed she would find herself.

“Growing up I swore that I would never do what my mom did,” says Hannah, a native of Neenah. “I would tell her that I was going to be a nurse or someone who wears scrubs everyday so I don’t need to dress in business clothes.”

By the time she was in high school, business clothes didn’t seem so awful and she was becoming increasingly intrigued by her mother’s work in the health care field.

Lisa, a 1989 UW-Eau Claire graduate, worked in the health care industry for a number of years before taking time off to stay home with her children.

When Hannah was 13, Lisa re-entered the workforce, accepting a position as an administrator of a long-term care facility.

Returning to the always changing, highly regulated health care world was rewarding but challenging, especially after 11 years away from it, Lisa says.

It turns out her work to overcome those challenges helped to spark her daughter’s interest in following in her mother’s professional footsteps.

“Long hours were spent at the facility finding my way around company policies, new regulations and connecting with staff,” Lisa says. “I’d often return after supper to work in my office and bring Hannah along as my sidekick. Staff, residents and families would come in and discussions and problem solving would begin.

“Driving home one night, Hannah said to me, ‘Mom, I like what you do. I like that people come to you for answers and you help them problem-solve.’” 

A few years later, as a junior in high school, Hannah still liked the idea of helping people solve problems so she began thinking about careers in health care or business.

She also began thinking about what college might be the best fit for her.

UW-Eau Claire was her first  and — as it turned out — her only campus visit.

Before the campus tour was over, Hannah knew she’d found her university and her major.

“During her day at UWEC, I stepped back to see if the magic happened like it did for me,” Lisa says of bringing her daughter to her alma mater. “Within two hours, she was beaming, full of excitement and she said to her best friend, ‘Why wouldn’t we go here? It’s amazing!’ I knew that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the spectacular UWEC campus and the students who shared their excitement.”

After volunteering for years at the facility her mother ran in Little Chute, she was finding herself more and more interested in the health care field, especially the business end of the industry, Hannah says.

“Watching the ins and outs of her job made me fall in love with the business side of it, but also how it can intertwine with health care,” Hannah says.

While her mother’s work influenced her thinking about her future, it was a UW-Eau Claire professor who convinced her health care administration was the right field for her.

“During my campus tour, I met with Professor Jennifer Johs-Artisensi,” Hannah says. “I told her about my passion for business and she said health care administrators are people who have ‘a head for business and a heart for caring.’ Her words stuck with me; I declared my major immediately my freshman year.”

Several years later, as she prepares to graduate, Hannah is more certain than ever that she made the right choice.

“Time has flown over my four years at UWEC because I chose a major that I am passionate about,” Hannah says.

Completing the same academic program as her mother — though 25+ years apart — has made her college experience even better, Hannah says.

“I get to talk to someone who not only is in the industry, but who was a mentor to an intern like me and who has gone through the program,” Hannah says of her mother. “I talk with my mom about my day, current projects I am working on, advice on what to do when I am stuck or for career advice.”

While the base of UW-Eau Claire’s health care administration program is the same as it was when her mother was a student, the program has evolved to meet the changing needs of the industry, Hannah says.

For example, students now must complete three innovative projects for their practicum facility, Hannah says, noting that the program also offers more opportunities for students to develop leadership skills.

The faculty are exceptional, industry leaders regularly come to campus to share information with students, students attend industry conferences to learn about real-world issues, and Blugolds have many opportunities to network, Hannah says of what she considers the program’s strengths.

While all are valuable, Hannah says the required yearlong practicum at a skilled nursing facility truly sets UW-Eau Claire’s program apart from others across the country.

Her practicum, she says, brought to life the many topics and issues discussed in the classroom, and helped her see how the many pieces of her academic program fit together.

As a result, Hannah says she feels confident and well prepared as she enters the workforce.

“UWEC still offers the best HCAD program in the nation by far,” Hannah says. “UWEC is known in the health care industry for producing excellent, well-rounded and prepared students to enter the workforce. I’m proud to be one of them.”

With her graduation just weeks away, Hannah already has passed her Wisconsin State Licensing Exam and is preparing to take her Federal Nursing Home Administrators Licensing Exam as she looks for her first job.

For Lisa, seeing her daughter graduate from her alma mater and prepare to enter the health care field brings a mix of pride and worry.

“I worry, like any parent, if the industry is too tough for her, and I sometimes want to pick the right company for her to get her first position but I realize that’s not my role any longer,” Lisa says. “I am proud that she chose the same degree from the same college. Her graduation will be extra special for me.”

Lisa also is looking forward to Hannah’s graduation for another reason — it means yet another talented Blugold will join the health care administration industry.

“I look forward to learning from Hannah over the next 10 years as she is a future leader of health care,” Lisa says.

Photo caption: Hannah Olejniczak (left) and her mother, Lisa (Knuppel) Olejniczak '89, both will be Blugold alumni when Hannah graduates from UW-Eau Claire this month, and the mother-daughter duo will have each earned a degree in health care administration.