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Life's challenges help new grad find career path

| Judy Berthiaume

They say that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.

Cassondra (Cassi) Ott has made a lot of lemonade during her years as a Blugold.

A psychology major who will earn her degree from UW-Eau Claire in May, Cassi began having health issues soon after she arrived on campus her freshman year.

“During my first two years at UW-Eau Claire, I experienced odd and seemingly unconnected symptoms,” Cassi says. “Multiple doctors shrugged off these symptoms as pinched nerves or the stress of college. However, the symptoms persisted.”

Things got even worse for Cassi when her 4-year-old cousin died of brain cancer the summer before her sophomore year, and then a much-loved great-grandfather passed away a few months later.

“I was heartbroken,” Cassi says of her losses.

That is when she started making lemonade.

While she always has been interested in entering a helping profession, as she worked through her grief, she found herself more and more interested in psychology and the health care field.

Through her pain, she began to see a future career path in counseling, specifically as a child life specialist helping children and their families through terminal diagnoses.

“I have always been passionate about helping those in need, especially in providing emotional support during challenging times,” says Cassi, a native of Stoughton. “My passion to help others led me to a career of counseling, but my own health struggles have helped me understand how perseverance is possible even in the most hopeless of times.”

While she returned to campus her junior year with an academic plan and a career goal in mind, Cassi’s struggles continued as her symptoms worsened and she developed eye pain.

During winter break, Cassi was hospitalized as new health problems were identified.

Cassi soon learned that her ongoing health issues were symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

“I was confused and scared, and worried about what this meant for my future,” Cassi says of the diagnosis.

As she returned to campus for spring semester, she was struggling to give herself injections and dealing with side effects of a new medication.

“My family kept me motivated to achieve my academic goals since the start of my struggles,” Cassi says of continuing her studies despite the health challenges. “They have continued to support me through times when doors kept closing.”

While she credits her family with helping her stay motivated academically, it was her own determination that kept her involved in the campus community.

A member of the Blugold Marching Band for four years, Cassi also serves as vice president of the Blugold Ringers Hand Bell Choir, and is a mentor in Student Support Services.

“My musical involvements were entirely of my own accord,” says Cassi. “Through the medical challenges, I have learned to allow myself to have fun, and not constantly allow the stress of college to drag me down. It has taken me years to learn this.”

While determined to make the most of her college experience, her health often did get in the way.

“I struggled with widespread pain,” Cassi says. “This pain made it difficult for me to sit still in class for so long without stretching. I had one experience where a professor called me out in class for fidgeting to stretch my back and neck. I was embarrassed and felt misunderstood. I also had a very difficult time making up for missing classes due to frequent doctor's appointments at home in Madison.”

Frustrated but not giving up, Cassi turned to UW-Eau Claire’s Services for Students with Disabilities office and Student Support Services for help.

Making use of those campus resources made all the difference, she says.

“My first year, I was a biology major with plans to become a pediatrician,” Cassi says. “After failing a core domain class for my major, I lost all hope. The Student Support Services staff supported me in finding a new major and career path more fitting to me.”

Eventually, she became a mentor to other students who came to the office for support, helping them find ways to achieve their academic goals and plan their future careers.

Cassi says the Services for Students with Disabilities office helped her understand that it is OK to ask for help.

“I fought the idea of receiving a student VISA to accommodate for my need to use a computer when numbness in my hands affects my ability to write, to accommodate my visual needs, and for having to explain my absences due to doctor appointments in Madison,” Cassi says. “They showed me that asking for help isn't a weakness, it's a strength. Admitting a need doesn't make you vulnerable, it shows courage and cognizance.”

As she prepares to graduate, Cassi says her many challenges — while difficult — have helped to shape who she is and how she sees her future.

“My struggles of loss and medical challenges have provided me with empathy, understanding and a passion for helping others,” Cassi says. “If you are passionate about being a part of something yet are challenged by personal difficulties, whether they be physical or mental, disability or not, you will find a way to make it work.”

In the fall, she will begin her graduate studies in UW-Whitewater's Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program.

Her goal is to become a licensed professional counselor specializing in grief counseling working in hospital settings with pediatric patients.

“My MS may have tried to hold me back from achieving my goals, but it sure hasn't been successful,” Cassi says.

Photo caption: Cassi Ott, second from right, helps cheer on Eau Claire Marathon runners with friends from the Blugold Ringers Hand Bell Choir.