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Blugold's roller-coaster college journey ending with psychology degree

| Judy Berthiaume

When Megan Hansen talks about her time at UW-Eau Claire, it sounds like she’s describing a three-plus-year ride on a roller coaster, complete with many surprise twists and turns as well as plenty of extreme ups and downs.

Fortunately, the Blugold has learned to manage the scary upside-down moments and embrace the throw-your-hands-up-in-the-air-in-joy parts of the ride.

“My college journey was a roller coaster to say the least,” says Hansen, who will graduate this month with a degree in psychology. “I had to overcome many mental and physical health issues, transferred here halfway through my freshman year and was a caretaker for my beloved aunt who eventually died due to lymphoma.

“But I also got to study abroad in India, complete two internships, be on the track team and gain friends I'll have for forever.”

COVID-19 added yet another unexpected twist to her journey when it closed the campus and moved the last weeks of her college classes online.

“This is a bizarre end to a wild roller coaster of an experience,” Hansen says. “But I treasure every moment and experience I’ve had at UWEC and can’t thank my professors enough. This school and this city will always hold a special place in my heart.”

Despite the ups and downs, Hansen is graduating a year ahead of schedule, earning her degree in just three years.

She brought more than 20 credits with her to UW-Eau Claire so she knew graduating early would be possible if she pushed herself.

Now, with graduation days away, Hansen says finishing her degree so quickly is bittersweet because it means leaving UW-Eau Claire.

“I’m saving a lot of money, I finally get to dedicate myself to my passion, and it’s a cool accomplishment — something I’ll always be proud of,” Hansen says of the early graduation. “However, I’ll dearly miss my friends and being a Blugold. UWEC is such a beautiful and unique campus.”

Midway through her freshman year, Hansen transferred to UW-Eau Claire to be closer to her family, including her much-loved aunt who was ill.

At the time, Hansen already was struggling with her own mental health, and was worrying about accumulating college debt and adding financial strain to her family.

Transferring to UW-Eau Claire made sense for all those reasons and more, she says.

It didn’t take her long to know that UW-Eau Claire was exactly where she was meant to be, Hansen says, adding that her parents, Dirk and Wendy Hansen, also are UW-Eau Claire alumni.

“My parents actually met at UWEC as students and then they never left town,” Hansen says of her early connections to the university. “I grew up walking around campus and hearing all of their stories about their time here. I also had a lot of high school friends going to UWEC, so my transition was pretty easy.”

Anxious to connect with other Blugolds, she moved into the dorms and joined the track team.

She found plenty of friends in both places.

“Within the first weekend of being on campus, I knew it was a great fit and I was right where I needed to be,” Hansen says, noting that deciding to transfer was more stressful than the transfer itself. “No one tells in you high school that transferring is common and is okay. So, I went through a lot of anxiety while deciding. Looking back, it was the best decision and I’m glad I listened to my gut.”

Shortly after she transferred to UW-Eau Claire, her aunt’s health deteriorated. So, she visited her in the hospital often and brought her to many of her medical appointments, Hansen says. Her parents run a family-owned small business, making it hard for them to get away.

As a result, Hansen was constantly balancing her academics with her caregiving duties, something possible only because her professors were so understanding and supportive, she says.

“It was very difficult and emotionally taxing,” Hansen says. “Still, if I had to do it again, I would. She meant the world to me and it was simply the right thing to do. Thankfully, I was also still able to have a successful and enjoyable college experience.”

While she was thriving as a Blugold in many ways, she still was struggling with her mental health.

Eventually, doctors determined she has both generalized anxiety and depressive disorders.

“Looking back, I had struggled with it all throughout high school, but didn’t realize what it was and didn’t accept how bad it had gotten until my freshman year of college,” Hansen says of the diagnosis.

Thanks to therapy, medications and a lot of hard work, she now is successfully managing her mental health, though she knows it will be an ongoing challenge.

“I feel much more capable and hopeful,” Hansen says. “Once I knew that this was actually a ‘thing,’ I put together a solid support system of friends and family.”

Unfortunately, just as she was getting her mental health under control, she began having trouble with her physical health. Over time, doctors determined she has a sleeping disorder and was experiencing side effects from the medications, along with several other health issues.

Being chronically exhausted and never feeling 100% made college more difficult, Hansen says.

“However, again, this is where communication, planning and grace come in,” Hansen says. “At the start of every semester, I explained to my professors what was going on and what I had to deal with. I asked for understanding and leniency. It’s not a free pass, but I know I have their support.”

Her psychology professors have been especially supportive, encouraging her to be successful in and out of the classroom.

The field of psychology has been a longtime interest, so she was happy to find a home within the psychology department after transferring to UW-Eau Claire.

“Growing up, I was always so curious as to why people acted the way they did,” Hansen says. “I spent a lot of time trying to figure everyone out. I already have innate qualities that many people associate with psychologists or psychology majors. I’m extroverted, I like to help others and I’m always giving advice and listening to people. UWEC has taught me that there is so much more to psychology.”

At UW-Eau Claire, she also found valuable mentors who encouraged her interests, including Dr. April Bleske-Rechek, professor of psychology; Dr. Stacey Jackson, assistant professor of psychology; and Dr. David Sparkman, assistant professor of psychology.

“Their classes were eye opening, and I find myself pulling concepts and information from them almost every day,” Hansen says. “I’m so grateful to earn my degree through this department. I have only good things to say about the professors and the overall climate of the department.”

Her professors encouraged her curiosity about the world, which inspired her to study abroad for a semester in India.

Hansen has always loved Hindu architecture, textiles and jewelry, so studying in India was an obvious choice once she knew she wanted a semester abroad, she says.

“I find the culture fascinating and beautiful,” she says of India. “I also knew this is a country I wouldn’t go to on my own or with my family since it would be difficult to navigate as a tourist. So, I took the opportunity to go when I could.”

In India, Hansen enjoyed exploring the famous structures and beautiful cities, as well as taking in the small moments that make up people’s day-to-day lives. Her time there taught her to think about the world a little differently, she says.

With her UW-Eau Claire graduation just days away, Hansen says she’s ready to begin what she expects to be another roller-coaster ride — graduate school.

In the fall, she will begin her classes at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, where she will study child development and jurisprudence in children's law and policy.

“I’m very passionate about both fields and am really excited to see what I can get involved in when I’m down in Chicago furthering my education,” Hansen says. “Beyond that, I’m not sure about my future. I’ve learned to never look ahead too much because just when you think you have it all planned out, something changes.”

Photo caption: Studying abroad in India was a highlight of Megan Hansen’s time as a Blugold.