Most students expect to graduate from college in four, maybe five years. Most understand that by the time they leave campus, they will have taken out some type of student loans. Most students certainly aren’t working to personally ease the financial burden for future Blugolds before they even walk across the stage at commencement.
Katie Dietlin is not like most students.
On May 19, the 21-year-old will graduate with a marketing degree, which she completed in three years, free of debt. But that’s not all. Katie has already made plans to set up her own scholarship to benefit fellow Blugolds beginning this fall.
Katie's journey at UW-Eau Claire has been anything but traditional. When Katie was still in high school, her parents — who are both self-employed — sat her down and said, “We can help you plan, but we don’t have a lot of money to help you out.” At 16, Katie never thought she’d have to consider how much debt she might accumulate in college, yet the conversation forced her to consider her financial plans for the future and how she could be most successful in college.
“I was a B student,” she admits. “Academics were never where I excelled, but I knew if I worked hard and stayed focused, it would pay off.”
A self-proclaimed “workaholic,” Katie, from Fitchburg, was able to save enough money throughout high school to pay for most of her initial college expenses, but when she started at UW-Eau Claire in fall 2015, the goal of leaving the university completely debt-free was something she always kept tucked in the back of her mind.
It was also during Katie’s freshman year that she discovered her passion for marketing and business. Initially declared as a nursing major, it was a last-minute RSVP to a campus networking event that inspired her to switch her major after only one semester. The event — Experience U — is an annual student and alumni networking event hosted by the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Alumni Association and Career Services that aims to prepare current students for “life after college.”
“After attending Experience U, I was on a networking high. I fell in love with business and wanted to continue meeting people,” Katie said. She soon changed her major to marketing and met with her advisor to come up with a new academic plan.
“I always knew I wanted to graduate early if I could,” she says. “The longer I stayed, the more debt I knew I might possibly accumulate.”
Katie credits her ability to graduate in three years to her advisor, who worked tirelessly to find a plan that would allow her to graduate in the least amount of time. Together, they reviewed course loads and planned summer schedules to accommodate her wishes. Katie knew it would be tough, but in true “workaholic” fashion, she knew she could do it.
It was at the same Experience U event that sparked her degree change where Katie met a Foundation staff member who connected her with an on-campus job for her second semester. She soon began working for UW-Eau Claire's Telefund program, calling alumni and fundraising for the university. The stories and fond memories shared by alumni and friends of UW-Eau Claire were so inspiring to her, the job almost didn’t feel like work at all.
Despite putting in the hours at multiple jobs and pinching pennies the best she could, Katie soon hit a road block. The money from the FAFSA she completed with her parents in high school had run out during her sophomore year.
“This was not part of my ‘leave college with zero debt’ plan, so I immediately began looking into loans and scholarships,” she says. “I was applying, writing essays, but thinking I probably was not going to get any of them.’”
But when an email from the College of Business appeared in Katie's inbox a few weeks later, she nearly overlooked it. She had been notified that she was the recipient of the Philip Breitman Scholarship — a full ride for one year, awarded to a junior or senior in the College of Business.
“It was a game-changer,” Katie says. “It meant I didn’t have to take out additional loans for my third and final year on campus.”
Between receiving the scholarship, her job at Telefund, and acting as her own financial advisor throughout college, Katie discovered a passion for helping others with personal finance. Coupled with her own gratitude as a recipient, the thought of one day starting her own scholarship to help others was an idea Katie couldn’t seem to let go of.
“After receiving the Philip Breitman Scholarship, I knew I had to pay it forward,” Katie says. “If someone could do this for me, I could certainly do it for somebody else.”
As she approaches the end of her final semester, Katie has been reflecting on her UW-Eau Claire experience. For the past year, her program courses and professional interests have aligned during her time as a marketing intern for the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and Alumni office.
“Working in that internship really got me thinking about how I could give back before I cross that finish line,” she says.
After discussions with Foundation staff and spending her internship learning the ins and outs of a university Foundation, Katie became serious about starting a scholarship. Her mission was to help someone else achieve their goal of earning a college degree with no student debt.
“Since others helped prepare me for what I’m doing, I want to do something for someone else,” she says. “Who would I be if I didn’t pay it forward?”
It’s the perfect time to do so. With graduation this weekend, Katie says she can do even more now that she won’t be focusing on schoolwork. Plus, she’s staying local. She was hired before graduation as a financial advisor with Thrivent Financial in Eau Claire, putting her passion for personal finance and helping others achieve their goals to good use.
“I’m excited that it’s not just about numbers,” Katie says. “It’s understanding peoples’ needs and setting them up for success —similar to what UW-Eau Claire did for me.”
Her advice to fellow Blugolds?
“Respect the people that you work for — those are the people who will help you get to better places. It’s about networking, being professional, respectful and reliable. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, but make sure you’re always moving in a forward direction.”
Photo caption: On May 19, Katie Dietlin will graduate from UW-Eau Claire in three years with zero debt. A scholarship recipient with a passion for business and philanthropy, she's on a mission to give back by creating her own scholarship before she even walks across the stage at commencement.