Photo caption: Elke Ingersoll interviewed several members of the Maasai tribe in Kenya, Africa, for her senior seminar research paper.
For 29 years, feelings of self-doubt and failure prevented Elke Ingersoll from returning to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to complete one final course to earn a college degree.
Earlier this year, Ingersoll finally found the strength to send an email to UW-Eau Claire that she drafted five years ago inquiring about whether she could still make her dream of a bachelor’s degree come true. Thanks to her own hard work and the assistance of UW-Eau Claire faculty and administrators, Ingersoll will be among Saturday’s graduates in Zorn Arena.
“It’s going to be a day of freedom and joy overflowing,” says Ingersoll, of Delavan, in southeastern Wisconsin. “It’s going to be freedom for me, freedom from all those years of letting fear and shame and insecurity hold me back. I can say I overcame it. When you are determined and follow through, you can accomplish anything.”
Dr. Louisa Rice, interim associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and professor of history, worked with Ingersoll as the nontraditional student relearned research and honed her writing skills to pass her final senior seminar course. Rice says she was inspired by Ingersoll’s bravery returning to obtain her degree after nearly three decades.
“Elke’s story reminds us that it is never too late to finish what we started,” Rice says.
Ingersoll had planned to become an elementary school teacher when she enrolled at UW-Eau Claire in 1989, but she changed her major to history in her second year. As Ingersoll dealt with multiple health issues and the emotions of her parents’ divorce, her grades suffered and she was in danger of not being able to graduate in 1994.
Ingersoll finished three incomplete assignments and attended commencement ceremonies that May, but she learned afterward that she had received a failing grade in one course, denying her a bachelor’s degree in history.
“I was in disbelief; I didn’t know what to do,” Ingersoll says.
Ingersoll already had been hired as a hall director at Manchester College in Indiana. After a year, she took a hall director job at North Park University in Chicago that had a course she took that would meet the requirement for her UW-Eau Claire degree. But with her health issues persisting, Ingersoll decided to return to her parents’ home in Lake Geneva for some rest. On the way, she was involved in a car accident where her car rolled after striking a semi, a van and an embankment.
“My whole life literally went flying across a corn field or was smashed inside a vehicle, including all the papers I was supposed to give to UW-Eau Claire from North Park,” Ingersoll recalls. “I needed to reset the trajectory of my life. It was too overwhelming. There were no online classes at that time, and I probably would have had to go back to Eau Claire. I was exhausted and terrified of facing that failure again.”
Ingersoll put aside thoughts of finishing her degree and during the ensuing years, she worked at a variety of jobs, where she earned multiple certifications to improve herself and her job prospects. But during interviews, the inevitable question of her college degree always came up.
“Every time I would have to tell the story again,” Ingersoll says. “It would bring back all these flooding emotions of failure and shame. That was hard for me because education was important to me, something I valued.”
Ingersoll took a job at Badger High School in Lake Geneva in 2015 and later advanced to a position in the school’s counseling office, where she often worked with recruiters from universities. She knew she had 126 college credits, so one day she pulled aside a UW-Eau Claire representative who was visiting Badger and learned there was no statute of limitations on those credits.
With the encouragement of a friend who was president of a theological seminary, she decided to finally reach out to UW-Eau Claire in January 2023.
“I started an email in 2018 and I was so afraid and so ashamed of what they were going to think of me,” Ingersoll says. “I let that email sit in my ‘draft’ box. I started it, didn’t know what to do with it and just left it there.”
The email found its way to the inbox of Dr. Marc Goulet, associate dean of faculty and student affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences. Goulet assessed Ingersoll’s coursework and during a 45-minute telephone conversation with her, confirmed she needed only to pass her capstone project to earn her degree.
“I got off the phone and cried tears of joy,” Ingersoll says.
Goulet says he gets requests similar to Ingersoll’s three or four times a year.
“It’s a great feeling when you can help a student get to their goal, in this case, of an undergraduate degree,” Goulet says. “There is a vulnerability in asking. It’s emotional. We recognize that and encourage them to still reach out. Once they take that step, they will find an understanding listener on the other end.”
The senior research seminar course is intensive and challenging for traditional students, Rice says, because they must write an original research paper in a single semester. It’s even more difficult for a student such as Ingersoll who has been away from the university for many years and must relearn research and academic writing skills, Rice says.
Ingersoll admitted the course was difficult, but she was passionate about the topic that related to mission work she and her husband undertook with a community development project in Kenya.
Ingersoll’s 27-page research paper focused on how the shifting landscape of time in Kenya, Africa, has affected the Maasai tribe’s identity as warriors and animal herders. “Maasai — Warrior Pastoralists Amid Shifting Landscapes” earned her the grade she needed to at last receive her undergraduate degree.
“I am so proud of her decision to return to UW-Eau Claire, of the project she was able to complete and that she is able to walk across the stage knowing she definitely earned her B.A. in history and is now — finally — a Blugold alum,’’ Rice says.