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Blugold Beginnings program selected for Board of Regents Diversity Award

| Julie Poquette

For UW-Eau Claire students Chantal Bougie and Whisper Kappus-McDew, the university’s Blugold Beginnings program has provided unexpected opportunities and a support system that has been life changing as they pursue their college degrees.

In recognition of its positive impacts on higher education access and success for hundreds of underrepresented, low-income and first-generation students, Blugold Beginnings has received a 2017 Diversity Award from the UW System Board of Regents. The $5,000 award will be presented Feb. 3 during the Board of Regents meeting in Madison.

“The team’s nomination demonstrates a proven record of institutional commitment and success for students who are members of historically underrepresented populations,” said Board of Regents President Regina Millner in a letter notifying Blugold Beginnings of the award. “We applaud the strong programmatic outcomes resulting from using an innovative approach to holistic student retention.”

Blugold Beginnings in action

Kappus-McDew, a junior at UW-Eau Claire, has participated in Blugold Beginnings programming since her freshman year at North High School in Eau Claire, where her Blugold Beginnings mentor, a UW-Eau Claire student volunteer, helped her prepare for and get into college. The first-generation college student now participates in the Blugold Beginnings Learning Community on campus.

As a liberal studies major with a focus on African American studies, critical race theory, and teaching English as a foreign language, Kappus-McDew’s career goals include helping students of color get the education they need and want, as well as advocating for human rights.

“Although I’m from Eau Claire, the Blugold Beginnings Learning Community became my home away from home,” Kappus-McDew said. “My first year was a bit difficult, and many times I felt like quitting, wondering if I was in in the right place. With this community, there was and is someone always there to talk to and ask any questions.”

Bougie, a sophomore kinesiology major from Oshkosh, credits Blugold Beginnings with providing her life-changing experiences and putting her on track to graduate a semester early.

As a first-year student, Bougie had concerns that she would not feel supported at college as she left her family to attend UW-Eau Claire. However, she found her support system actually expanded when she became a member of the Blugold Beginnings Learning Community. Coming from a high school attended predominantly by white students, she also values the friendships she has been able to develop with other students of color.

“If I had to choose only one of the past 19 years of my life where I learned and was significantly impacted by the diversity and cultures of others, my freshman year at UW-Eau Claire would, no question, be number one, thanks to the Blugold Beginnings Learning Community,” Bougie said.
Through her participation in the learning community, Bougie’s expenses were covered to participate in UW-Eau Claire’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage. The immersion experience takes students to areas of the Deep South, where students are steeped in the history of the civil rights movement. Bougie had entered college thinking that finances would prevent her from participating in such an experience.

“The Civil Rights Pilgrimage allowed each one of us to learn about significant, life-changing parts of our history by immersing ourselves in the places where the events took place,” Bougie said. “This trip was a very moving experience and I'm glad that I was able to do what I thought I couldn't do, all thanks to the Blugold Beginnings Learning Community.”

Creating a culture of college readiness, success

With its main goal of inspiring students “to believe that a post-secondary education is important, attainable and available,” Blugold Beginnings has grown from its start in 2008 as a middle school precollege outreach project to a program serving students from elementary through college levels today.

“An incredible team of students, faculty and staff, K-12 teachers, counselors and partnership coordinators from our region have worked tirelessly to build the Blugold Beginnings program from the ground up,” said Jodi Thesing-Ritter, Blugold Beginnings founder and director. “This Board of Regents Diversity Award is a tremendous honor recognizing that collective work and dedication to create a culture of postsecondary readiness and success in our area.”

For students in area K-12 schools, Blugold Beginnings provides tutoring, mentoring, study skills and leadership skills building, summer camps, career exploration, college preparation and UW-Eau Claire campus visits. Schools in Eau Claire, Altoona and Augusta participate in all or some of the programming. The demand for UW-Eau Claire students to serve as Blugold Beginnings tutors and mentors in area schools continues to grow.

As Blugold Beginnings programming has expanded to more schools, “it is our hope that this greater presence will increase the college application and admission rates for underrepresented students as the students served through the program complete high school,” Thesing-Ritter said.

At the college level, the UW-Eau Claire Blugold Beginnings Learning Community provides academic, social and personal support to multicultural, first-generation and economically disadvantaged students throughout their undergraduate experience. Since the learning community program began six years ago, it has served more than 300 college students during their UW-Eau Claire careers, maximizing their campus experiences and providing a track toward graduation within four years.

Students in the learning community are employed up to eight hours a week through the Blugold Beginnings program to provide mentorship to area elementary, middle and high school students. Over six years, learning community students have mentored more than 1,000 fifth- through 12th-graders in western Wisconsin.

The outcomes of the Blugold Commitment Learning Community have been noticeable, Thesing-Ritter said. In 2015-16, UW-Eau Claire students participating in the learning community obtained higher grade-point averages than other multicultural students on campus, as well as the student body as a whole. Learning community students also participated in National Student Exchange and study abroad programs at the same rate as majority students, and at a higher rate than that of other multicultural students. The percentage of students in the learning community who leave the university before completing their degree is also significantly lower than that of other multicultural students at UW-Eau Claire overall.

“I can think of no other program more deserving of this Board of Regents Diversity Award than Blugold Beginnings,” said UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt. “It’s an outstanding example of what partnerships and collaboration can accomplish, when you consider how our entire campus community, school district staffs from around the region, community agencies, and business and industry stakeholders have all worked together to create this comprehensive and seamless precollege access and college retention program that is having a significant, positive impact on students, our campus and our region.”

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire student Ameer Collins, a participant in the Blugold Beginnings Learning Community, works with fifth-grade students from Manz Elementary School in Eau Claire during a citizenship and service event organized by the learning community members.