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Biology grad reflects on her unconventional college success story

| Denise Olson (story); Jesse Yang (video)

When asked what advice she would give future Blugolds, May UW-Eau Claire biology graduate Carolyn Bauer's reply was short and to the point: a favorite quote from author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman.

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive," Bauer quoted, adding her own impression, "You will find your calling. It's simply a matter of where and when." 

For Bauer, that "where and when" was found in a place she never thought she'd find herself — at a small, two-year campus in rural Wisconsin. Bauer began biology studies at UW-Eau Claire – Barron County while still a high-school student at Prentice High School, completing her associate degree and high school diploma simultaneously. While it wasn't the path she had ever planned to take, she now knows it was the best possible decision for her, for a wide variety of reasons.

"Too many people overlook two-year campuses in favor of a four-year, and they miss out on a unique and individualized personal learning experience," Bauer said. "Because the faculty-student ratio is relatively high, students are more able to receive concentrated help and build strong connections with professors. It is a close-knit community, not to mention affordable, and I wouldn't trade my experience there for the world."

Two UW-Eau Claire – Barron County faculty members in particular provided Bauer significant support and inspiration, and she points to those connections as the link that grounded her experience and showed her what was possible. 

"Biology faculty member Dr. David Caithamer encouraged me, supported me and believed in me while I was going through the darkest period in my life," she said. "He had no idea about any of it; he simply went above and beyond his job description, every day, and it changed my life and inspired my passion for biology."

Bauer also credits Dr. Abbey Fischer, assistant professor of chemistry, as the person who instilled in her the idea that there are "no silly questions" and showed her students how to prioritize health and well-being along with their studies.

"Dr. Fischer gave me a firm foundation in chemistry, but she also showed me what it looks like to have a firm foundation in life." 

Act 2: UW-Eau Claire

Equipped with what she knew was excellent preparation for completing a bachelor's degree, Bauer transitioned to UW-Eau Claire in 2018. She entered with a Blugold Fellowship focusing on research and took on her upper-level classes and projects with confidence and curiosity.

"I have worked with Dr. Paul Kaldjian in the geography and anthropology department for the last two years. We are interested in studying the relationship between introversion and space, and our poster was presented at CERCA online this year," Bauer said. "I was also accepted to present at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research 2020, but that opportunity was canceled due to COVID-19."

Like her experience in Rice Lake, Bauer found UW-Eau Claire connections and good rapport with faculty that helped her acclimate to a new campus and forge ahead with her academic goals.

"Dr. Matthew Evans in physics made me feel at home after I transferred," Bauer adds. "He was my physics professor and my Blugold Fellowship mentor for my first semester. He made himself available to help me work through everything from book problems to career crises. He gave advice and inspired wisdom."

During Winterim this past January, Bauer took part in an immersion trip to the U.K. as part of a biology course called "History of Medical Breakthroughs in London," a trip led by Dr. Julie Anderson and Dr. Winnifred Bryant.

"I learned an immense amount about the history of medicine and health care systems, which I feel will help me become a better practitioner," said Bauer, who currently works in a senior care facility as a clinical assistant and plans to attend graduate school to become a physician assistant.

"Additionally, I was able to travel to Edinburgh with the class and to Paris with a friend. For someone who is passionate about travel and health care, this immersion was a phenomenal experience."  

Finishing strong — online

Bauer's college life is coming to a close much like it began — in an unconventional way. While she wishes that COVID-19 had not wreaked havoc on every aspect of life in 2020, she is still finishing her senior year strong, full of hope and high expectations for her future. Her outlook on the setback can provide us all with a dose of positivity in the face of disappointment or struggle.

"I was heartbroken that my last semester ended so suddenly," Bauer said. "I regret not being able to cultivate budding relationships more, yet I have gained so much of value in the last month and a half. My world shook, and everything that wasn't built on a firm foundation fell. My heart was sifted until only solid things remained. I've been stripped down to simply ... me. I've discovered that that's still enough. I have become even more firmly rooted in my identity and in my purpose, and that matters."

With the wisdom of someone far beyond her 20 years, Bauer pointed out our common humanity in times of triumph or trial, giving her fellow Blugolds in the Class of 2020 a new way to frame their shared reality. 

"Pain, change and uncertainty have a funny way of inspiring focus. It's human to be heartbroken, confused and angry. But it's also human to grieve, to let go of broken expectations and to move on. Let's choose to live — to make our past the past, and to use our present to build a better future."

Photo caption: Taking in the view of Edinburgh from atop Calton Hill, Bauer enjoyed the sights and history of the region as much as the study of medical breakthroughs originating in the British Isles. (Photo by Keisha Kappel.)

Bauer was one of several students featured in a series of student profiles from the UW-Eau Claire – Barron County campus in 2018. Watch Carolyn Bauer's video interview.