Jodi Thesing-Ritter, director of Blugold Beginnings and executive director of equity, diversity and inclusion at UW-Eau Claire, is no stranger to helping college students attain higher education.
Whether it’s leading a group of UW-Eau Claire students and community members to learn about the nation's civil rights history, or coordinating coding and robotics camps aimed at girls with STEM-related interests, Thesing-Ritter has one goal in mind: resolving to be and do better.
Raised on a family farm in east Texas, Thesing-Ritter’s love of the sciences was seeded at a young age.
While pursuing a biology degree at a university in New York, she worked as a resident assistant and interned as a campus programmer in the dean of students’ office. It was then she realized her love for mentoring and working with college students and decided to make a career change.
“At the last minute, I decided to finish up my biology degree but not go to med school and instead go to graduate school in student affairs because I really loved the student affairs experience.”
Thesing-Ritter started her professional career at UW-Eau Claire in 1994 as the residence hall director for Towers North and later worked as the assistant director of Housing and Residence Life. She served as the associate dean of students on campus for 10 years before transitioning into her current role as the executive director of equity, diversity and inclusion in the Blugold Beginnings Office.
“I love our students. I love helping them figure out what their role in making the world better is going to look like. I also really enjoy helping students seek out opportunities to build their skill set and to help shape and form their identity. I think it’s so important that we critically reflect on the way in which our space is not as inclusive as we want it to be and be very strategic about making sure that every student fits here (at UW-Eau Claire) and finds their voice while they’re here,” she says.
Formed in 2008, the Blugold Beginnings program, led by Thesing-Ritter, currently serves fifth graders through graduating seniors in the area. The program exists to reduce the opportunity gap for low-income, first-generation students and girls entering STEM fields by providing them with mentorship, career exploration, tutoring, leadership-building opportunities and college planning, Thesing-Ritter says.
A proponent of teaching women’s history and shining a spotlight on the way in which women are excluded from the rhetoric, Thesing-Ritter is also passionate about teaching critical race theory.
“One of the things our Blugold Beginnings students really like is they’re able to take at least one to two courses in their freshman year with other students of color so they don’t always have to be the only other person of color in the room. One of those courses is a course where we study race, racism and activism and positive social change, where they can see themselves reflected in the curriculum, and many times, they are able to give voice to things they’ve been feeling since kindergarten.”
Actively involved in the community, Thesing-Ritter coaches her sons’ baseball teams and helped develop the city of Eau Claire’s first joint softball and baseball field complex, the first outdoor space designated for softball athletes. She also leads cohorts on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a 10-day travel immersion experience to explore issues of social justice and the history of the civil rights movement in the U.S.
“Everywhere we went on the trip, people are like, ‘If you look in your own community, these issues are at play.’ When I came back and took a look at my own community, I recognized that those issues are at play. As an educator at a predominantly white institution, I was perpetuating those issues, and I had to take a hard look at myself, at the work we do here, the work that we do in our communities, and I really just resolved to do better for myself and for others. That resolve is fortified every time I go on the trip again.”
The Civil Rights Pilgrimage celebrated its 10th-year anniversary in March 2018 with its 20th group of students and community members. Having attended 19 of the 20 trips, Thesing-Ritter says she learns something new from each pilgrimage, allowing her to help sharpen her perspective as a leader and mentor on campus.
“Over the last 10 years, we have been able to reach a lot of lives. My life has been altered in so many positive ways because of the opportunity to engage with such a diverse array of really talented humans. I get to be inspired every day, and it’s amazing to come to a campus where the people you work with make you want to come back to work the next day.”
Watch the video above to learn more about Jodi Thesing-Ritter.