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Faculty mentors help new grad succeed despite health challenges and pandemic

| Judy Berthiaume

The phrase “adjusting to the new normal” has taken on a whole new meaning in recent months for one UW-Eau Claire graduating senior.

Just before her final semester of college began, Amelia Montie learned she has Type 1 diabetes, a diagnosis that turned the Minneapolis native’s world upside down.

“My career planning and everything else had to take a back seat while I supported my physical well-being,” says Montie, who will graduate with degrees in information systems and sociology, as well as a certificate in LGBTQ studies. “T1D is a full-time job I never applied for, never wanted and can't quit."

Just weeks after her diagnosis, as she was still learning to manage her diabetes, COVID-19 cases soared in the U.S., closing UW-Eau Claire’s campus and pushing all classes online.

Despite these back-to-back life-changing events, Montie is staying positive as she finishes college online and considers her future.

“When I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, the thing people kept telling me was that I will soon be ‘adjusted to my new normal,’” Montie says. “It's been interesting with COVID because I've heard this same language floating around. From both of these things, I think the message we need to hear is that we need to be adaptable, but we also need to take the space to grieve our losses.”

Fortunately, Montie says, adapting is something she now does well thanks to faculty mentors who supported and encouraged her during her years as a Blugold, helping her find her confidence and her voice.

“Transitioning to college is challenging for a lot of students,” Montie says. “As a student who was both undecided and queer, coming into a new space and community was a big shift.”

During her first semester, Dr. Peter Hart-Brinson, associate professor of sociology, recognized her for an essay she had written in his class. Thanks to his encouraging words, her interest in sociology — along with her confidence — grew, she says, adding that Hart-Brinson became her first college mentor.

The next semester, Montie was in a class taught by Dr. Pam Forman, chair of the sociology department and a professor of sociology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Since she was the only freshman enrolled in the upper-level seminar course, Montie soon was on Forman’s radar.

“By that point, I already was trying to figure out how I could integrate my passion for sociology into a career path,” Montie says. “I have always been interested in data, so while this is often flagged as an odd combination of majors, studying information systems and sociology aligned with my passions.

“Pam connected me with Dr. Jean Pratt in the College of Business, who has been another strong mentor. She supports me and recognizes how my interests might not fall directly along a straight business trajectory.”

Having several mentors guiding her throughout her four years at UW-Eau Claire was invaluable, Montie says. Their support and encouragement helped her thrive in and out of the classroom, she says.

“Having a mentor puts someone in your corner,” Montie says. “The moments I’m most proud of, my mentors were there for. They also supported me through some of my most challenging times, like being hospitalized and diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and learning to navigate this huge change. I know my mentors will continue to support me even outside of my time at Eau Claire.”

Forman played an especially important role in her college journey, Montie says.

Together, they traveled to San Francisco and programmed a queer film festival, explored and presented multiple research projects and soon will have a chapter that includes their research published, Montie says of her collaborations with Forman.

“Beyond our work, Pam has supported me on a personal level in navigating life challenges and inspires me to continue to be inquisitive about the world and engaged in my community,” Montie says.

Collaborating on research with Forman and others in the sociology department and the Honors Program beginning her freshman year also has been a meaningful part of her college experience.

Through her research, she learned to think differently about the world and to see how she might help make positive change, Montie says.

“Engaging in research supported me in integrating my learning and encouraging me to think more critically about the world,” Montie says. “It's shifted the way I think about things. I already have a running list of research topics for future projects.”

“Overall, I think my research has allowed me to have an active voice in our community and larger society about things that I think matter.”

Montie says still another meaningful outside-the-classroom experience was her work with UW-Eau Claire’s annual Eau Queer Film Festival, which this year became freaQweek. She used her data and technology skills to serve as a student programmer and website developer for the project.

Through the project, she has spent two summers in San Francisco attending the Frameline Film Festival, networking with filmmakers, documenting their experiences and collaborating to bring films to UW-Eau Claire that would make an impact on the community.

“While I gained many professional skills from this experience, the greatest value was the validation of my queer identity and the way it connected me with the queer community,” Montie says. “I have grown immensely working as a Gender & Sexuality Resource Center intern, under the mentorship of Dr. Chris Jorgenson and Kallie Friede, who have supported me in becoming an inclusive leader.”

Montie knows graduate school is in her future, but she wants to take more time before deciding what specifically she wants to study.

She hopes having more experiences beyond UW-Eau Claire will help her decide which of her many interests to focus on in the future, Montie says, noting that her interests include public policy, institutional research, instructional design, systems development, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and supporting T1D and accessibility advocacy.

For now, her goal is to find a job doing something that she is passionate about and that supports her community.

“I am so thankful for all of the experiences I’ve had at UW-Eau Claire that have helped shape me as an individual,” Montie says. “UWEC has helped me find my voice as an advocate and connected me with a community that continues to encourage me to pursue my passions and to be true to myself.”

Photo caption: Amelia Montie says the mentors and experiences she found as a Blugold have helped her overcome challenges and prepare for future success.