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Using education to change our world for the better

| Jodi Thesing-Ritter

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon for changing the world.”

Now, more than ever, I believe this to be true.  

I’ve seen it happen in the eight years of leading the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a 10-day immersion trip providing students the opportunity to visit sites of historical significance to the civil rights movement. But that change didn’t happen overnight and would not have happened without inspired students leading the way.

Early in the fall of 2007, a colleague invited me to meet with a group of four resident assistants who believed that teaching UW-Eau Claire students about the civil rights movement would support their diversity education goals in their residence hall. They wanted to create an alternative spring break experience that would allow students to travel and learn. It sounded a bit like a “pie in the sky” idea, but anyone who knows me knows that I live for helping students make their ideas a reality. So I worked to connect them with folks on campus who could bring their idea to life.

In December the students invited me to lunch. It was finals week and they hadn’t gotten much traction for their idea, but they were determined to make it happen for spring break. Sarah Gonzalez, now an alum, asked whether I’d be willing to go on the trip and co-advise their efforts. I reluctantly agreed. But, I needed to take my son (now 8, then 3 months old) because he would still be nursing at the time of our trip.

When I said yes that day, I thought about what a great learning experience the trip would be for the trip coordinators and the students participating. What I didn’t know was that this trip would transform my own life and cement my own commitment to using education to change my little corner of the world.

With the help of Kimera Way, UW-Eau Claire Foundation president, and generous donors to the Foundation, Sarah Gonzalez, Chris Neilson, Katie Lashua, Tim Kenney and their residence hall director, January Boten, made that first trip a reality. In March of 2008, January and I left Eau Claire with 42 students. The first trip was almost nothing like the trip I now take with more than 100 students twice a year.

Yet that first trip is so important to me because something happened to me on that trip. I have always been drawn to support multicultural understanding and have dedicated much of my career to increasing diversity on our campus. I was proud of my work and believed I was doing all I could. After all, I was on spring break with 42 college students, my 12- and 10-year-old daughters, and my nursing baby. But I had more to learn.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, while touring the Little Rock Central High School exhibit at the National Park site, my 10-year-old took my hand and walked me over to a picture of an empty hallway of Little Rock Central High School taken in the year following the desegregation crisis. She told me about what she had read about the “lost year” of school, when they closed all of the schools because they didn’t want black and white kids to go to school together. I cried. My fourth grader could see the unfairness of it all in a way that I never could before I saw it through her eyes.

The next day we were in Memphis and had the chance to meet Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine students. Following her presentation I had the chance to talk to her and ask some questions about education. Afterward, she hugged me and said we needed to do more about the issues with education today. And, I knew she was right.

I returned to campus and, with a number of motivated students from that first trip, began to work on the foundation of the program we now call Blugold Beginnings. Today, UW-Eau Claire Blugold Beginnings serves as a comprehensive college access program designed to help all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, achieve their post-secondary education dream. Blugold Beginnings now serves thousands of students in our region using college students as tutors/mentors.

As we close this terrific month of programming and exhibits showcasing the history of the civil rights movement, it seems fitting that we close with a Blugold Beginnings event at the Chippewa Valley Museum showcasing the “Risking Everything” exhibit and the important role that college students played in making change during Freedom Summer. Learning this history of where we’ve come from and being inspired by the change-makers of the past have motivated me to do more to increase access to higher education for all people. Blugold Beginnings does just that. Our UW-Eau Claire students are making similar change today through their work to increase access to education.

UW-Eau Claire has demonstrated to our region, through the investment in this program, that we are an educational institution that will be a change leader. And although I don’t know what may come next, I’m confident that when the next student comes up with an idea to …, we’ll again answer “yes.” We will follow Nelson Mandela’s example and use education as a powerful weapon to change our world for the better.

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire students speak with Aroine Irby, docent at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, during the 2015 Civil Rights Pilgrimage.