Destini and Jayda Wilson are cousins, and both have spent a few weeks of this summer taking part in online STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) camps offered through Blugold Beginnings. Destini, a Blugold sophomore from Eau Claire, has worked as a virtual camp counselor, and her cousin Jayda has participated as a middle-school camper from her home in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Blugold Beginnings program and its summer camps have become award-winning efforts in the ongoing commitment to increase equity, diversity and inclusion at UW-Eau Claire. Destini and Jayda have enjoyed not only the experience of the camps themselves, but also the special connection their family has to UW-Eau Claire and this program.
A Blugold family history
Juan and Adrian Wilson still were young boys when they first came to UW-Eau Claire to participate in a pre-college math and science summer program in the early 1990s, a precursor to the Blugold Beginnings camps of today. The program offered 30 students from Milwaukee — including the Wilson brothers — an opportunity to spend a week on a college campus, take enrichment courses and explore subjects unavailable in their schools.
“We came for five summers," Juan says of participating in the pre-college math and science program. "From that opportunity, I was also invited to a few other summer programs and attended the Youth Leadership Camp and the Science Summer Institute.”
After graduating from high school, Juan and Adrian enrolled at UW-Eau Claire as full-time students living and working in residence halls, Adrian studying management and Juan earning his degree in management information systems in 2002.
They had no way of knowing then that by participating in those summer camps and subsequently working with Jodi Thesing-Ritter — founder and director of Blugold Beginnings and executive director of equity, diversity and inclusion — they helped set into motion a series of events that still are impacting their lives and the lives of thousands of others, including their own daughters, two decades later.
Navigating a predominately white campus
Through the pre-college camps, the Wilsons learned about many things they had little exposure to back home, like computers, which immediately interested Juan. However, they also discovered for the first time what it felt like to be in the minority in a predominantly white community.
"While we were growing up, we were surrounded by other people of color,” Juan says. “When we got to campus it was an immediate 'Oh yeah, I get it' moment; we were in a seeder program trying to bring racial diversity to this predominantly white university and community."
As Juan reflects on those initial feelings, he now understands that while he wasn't completely aware of the situation before arriving at UW-Eau Claire, he quickly figured things out and was not turned off by the struggle it could pose for him; he wanted to be here.
As they learned to navigate the uncomfortable feelings of being in the minority in Eau Claire, they made strong enough connections to campus and the supports offered by the precursor to the Office of Multicultural Affairs that the brothers felt that UW-Eau Claire would be the right college for them.
Both lived in Towers residence halls, and Juan became a resident assistant for Thesing-Ritter, who was a hall director at that time. Juan was an RA for 3 1/2 years, and never lived off campus.
"Juan and Adrian were great students and worked as security staff and summer conference assistants," Thesing-Ritter says, adding that the brothers had also done child care for her own children when she had meetings or needed to leave campus.
"I worked for Jodi in Towers for two years, and we would have conversations around diversity and how to bring more students like myself to campus," Juan says.
During conversations about what eventually became the Blugold Beginnings program, Juan recalls telling Thesing-Ritter what impact he thought pre-college programs have.
"I would never have known Jodi without that early Blugold Beginnings-type program. I told her there's no way I would have been introduced to UW-Eau Claire if someone hadn't brought me here, and she knows that. That's why she fosters those connections now."
Thesing-Ritter says she can attribute much of her inspiration for starting Blugold Beginnings to her connections with the Wilson family and the other students in their math and science camp cohort.
"Getting to know the Wilson brothers, building a strong relationship with them and learning about their experiences as young campers and later students of color on this campus, really shined a spotlight on the need for more programming for underserved populations at UW-Eau Claire." Thesing-Ritter says.
The Blugold Beginnings program works to educate and inspire students, especially underrepresented, low-income or first-generation students, to believe that a post-secondary education is important, attainable and available to them at UW-Eau Claire and other institutions.
Blugold Beginnings offers a variety of programs and services to promote a college-going culture and to help students obtain a higher education. These include mentoring of middle and high school students, career exploration, social events, tutoring, leadership coaching, academic advising and ACT preparation.
Juan went on to explain that "without programs like Blugold Beginnings and offices like the Office of Multicultural Affairs, people who look like me will not feel safe and welcome here. We have to build environments where students don't feel like the 'other.'"
"One of the things we know about the structural barriers of racism and classism is that generational wealth and access to opportunities are not passed down, but when barriers are removed like we do with Blugold Beginnings, people gain access and then create opportunity for the next generation," Thesing-Ritter says.
Next generation of Wilsons
Both Juan and Adrian Wilson are gratified to know that their daughters have both made connections to UW-Eau Claire, a place that had such a deep impact on each of them.
Destini Wilson, who is a second-year criminal justice major, chose UW-Eau Claire for many reasons, not only because her parents attended. As an Eau Claire resident through middle school and high school, she took part in the pre-college programs Upward Bound and Blugold Beginnings, giving her a high level of familiarity with the campus and key diversity advocates.
"I've always felt at home on this campus, which was not a feeling I experienced when I visited other campuses," she says.
As a first-year student, Destini enrolled in the Blugold Beginnings Learning Community and had the opportunity to go on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage. She was set to serve as a CRP coordinator before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the spring 2020 trip.
Destini's father, Adrian, is happy that she has found the same feeling of "home" at UW-Eau Claire that he experienced, and he's tremendously proud of all the work she has done to become a standout student and mentor for other young students of color.
"My daughter is one of the strongest people I know," he says, remarking that Destini has come through some difficult times and has a strong drive to accomplish things on her own.
"Her attending UW-Eau Claire allows her to get to know some of the people who were positive influences on me. I'm happy that she's in such an amazing environment and having some of the same priceless experiences there that I enjoyed."
Jayda, her younger cousin and Blugold Beginnings 2020 virtual camper, has found the STEAM camps to be very interesting and still fun, despite having to take place online.
"It was fun when some people who knew my parents or know Destini came online and talked to me while I worked with my counselor — that was cool," she says.
"I've been to visit Eau Claire and it's definitely a place I might go to college. But I'm also, like ... 12," she says with a giggle.
Juan remains hopeful that his daughter might enroll as a Blugold someday as his niece did, but for now is glad she is enjoying the Blugold Beginnings camps and learning about some fields that interest her.
"It's nice to know that she's in an environment that worked for me," Juan says. "If she goes to school there, it would be like sending her home."
Full circle program success
It's precisely that feeling of "home" that Thesing-Ritter and other faculty and staff across campus try to help build for students in all underrepresented groups. Students who build connections like that are much more likely to succeed.
"The work we're doing to break down barriers is working to close the gaps in opportunity," Thesing-Ritter says. "Current events are bringing the topic more to the attention of the general public, which is good. We've been doing this work for a long time, and we're seeing successes. Now more than ever, this work needs to be amplified so more individuals can reach their full potential.
"This is a beautiful story about the Wilson family. They have maximized their full potential by having access to opportunities, and the fact that the next generation is now able to take advantage of all the great things that UW-Eau Claire has to offer is something we can be very proud of. We still need to work very diligently to keep extending these opportunities to others."
For more information about the Blugold Beginnings program and descriptions of the current summer virtual camp offerings, please visit the Blugold Beginnings website.