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First-generation student finds support and future career as she learns to navigate higher ed

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

After excelling at her high school in Cumberland, Miranda Ricci was eager to go to college, confident she could handle the rigorous coursework she knew she would find at a university.

She was far less confident, however, that she could successfully navigate all the other challenges she would face in higher education. Everything from applying for financial aid to finding a major was a mystery to her.

“As a first-generation student, I got thrown into adulthood the minute I turned 18 and decided I wanted to go to college,” says Ricci, now a junior organizational communication major and psychology minor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “When I decided to go to college, I knew I had to figure it all out myself. I have the support of my family, but I don’t have anyone in my family or people I’m close to who could help me navigate all those adult decisions. It all came at me so quickly.”

An added stress was not knowing early on exactly what she wanted to study.

Given all the unknowns, Ricci decided it was best to start small and close to home, so she enrolled in UW-Eau Claire – Barron County, a two-year campus close to her hometown.

“I wanted to give myself the time and space to explore and feel comfortable,” Ricci says. “I decided to get my general associate degree first and then work from there.”

Finding her voice and confidence

Her college plan turned out even better than she’d hoped. On the small campus in Rice Lake, Ricci found the support system — and confidence — she needed to thrive academically and to grow personally.

“There were tons of people who were willing and ready to lend a hand,” Ricci says. “They were willing to help me with anything at any time right from the start. I developed connections, put myself out there — even when it was scary — and I ended up doing everything I wanted to do.”

Ricci threw herself into her studies as well as campus life, becoming especially active in the Student Government Association. She found a passion for student government, serving as the SGA president her second year of college.

After earning her associate degree, Ricci was eager to continue her studies. Transferring to UW-Eau Claire was a “no brainer” given its affiliation with the campus in Rice Lake and its nearby location, she says.

Starting at a new campus during a pandemic

Miranda Ricci is building stronger connections with her new campus and introducing future Blugolds to UW-Eau Claire through her work with campus ambassadors.

Miranda Ricci is building stronger connections with her new campus and introducing future Blugolds to UW-Eau Claire through her work with Campus Ambassadors. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

While the transition from high school to the two-year campus was smooth, moving from the small campus to UW-Eau Claire was far more difficult than she had expected, Ricci says. Initially, she struggled to navigate the larger campus and community. COVID-19 made it even more difficult to get her footing and build connections with other students, faculty and staff.

So, while she felt anxious and struggled with her mental health, Ricci did what she did in Rice Lake — she began reaching out to people on campus even though it was uncomfortable and especially challenging to do during a pandemic that upended campus life. Still determined, she joined student organizations, reached out to other students, and let faculty and staff know she was struggling and needed their help.

Soon, Ricci says, new friends were introducing her to their friends and contacts, the Dean of Students office was sharing campus resources, and people let her know about potential scholarships.

“My advice to students who are having a hard time is to let people know what’s going on,” Ricci says. “With the transition, I lost my support system, so I let people know that is what I was looking for. I started making new friends and communicating with professors and going to office hours. Basically, I was starting all over again, but this time I was doing it as a junior.

“By putting myself out there, I found out there are so many people here, like in Rice Lake, who are ready and willing to help me. They made sure I had the support and networks I needed. This year has been difficult, but it’s getting much better.”

Ricci has tapped into multiple campus resources, from Counseling Services to the campus attorney, and all have helped to guide and encourage her, Ricci says.

She’s been especially impressed with UW-Eau Claire’s faculty.

“Everyone has supported me, but my biggest support at UWEC has come from my professors,” Ricci says. “They’re really putting themselves out there and stepping out of their comfort zone during a pandemic to make sure I have the support I need.”

Ricci also has embraced other less traditional strategies for managing the anxiety that has sometimes interfered with her life, especially during this stressful year. For example, she now has a service dog, a 9-year-old Yorkie that had previously been her grandmother’s companion.

“When I was going through this difficult transition, I knew I needed something more, even than my family and friends,” Ricci says. “She’s the sweetest dog and became the reason I could get out of bed some mornings. She might be a two-pound Yorkie, but she brings so much love and joy and is always waiting for me. That’s really what I needed to get through some of the hardest days.”

She hopes by talking about her mental health struggles, it will encourage other students to speak up and seek help as they need it.

“It was difficult, and I’m still not where I need to be, but I get up every day and try,” Ricci says. “I feed my dog and do homework and push myself. I’m not necessarily comfortable talking about it, but I’m doing this to let others know they are not alone.

“Every hardship in my life has made me stronger, but especially coming to Eau Claire in the middle of a pandemic while trying to get my last years of college done has made me realize how strong I am. No matter what is thrown at me, I’m going to make it through. That’s something I definitely didn’t know before this year.”

Finding opportunities at UW-Eau Claire

While the past year has brought plenty of stress, Ricci says she’s also found plenty of opportunities on the larger campus, noting that “while everything is different here, it means there are new doors to open.”

As she opens those new doors, she’s finding many interesting opportunities, some familiar and some new to her. For example, as she did in Rice Lake, she has been active in the Student Senate and other student organizations.

However, serving as a Campus Ambassador has been a new and wonderful experience, Ricci says. As an ambassador, she leads campus tours for prospective students and their families, and represents the university in various other ways.

The Campus Ambassadors program has helped her meet a “wonderful group of people who have made me feel at home,” and also is helping her feel more connected to her new campus.

“Becoming an ambassador was my best decision when it came to transferring,” Ricci says. “Because I came here as a junior during the pandemic, I really didn’t know where things were on campus. Now, because of Campus Ambassadors, I feel like this campus is mine. It feels like it is my place to learn and my home. I also get to share my experiences and my love for the campus and for higher education with other people.”

Looking to the future

All of her experiences on and off campus have helped her find the right major and a path to her future career, Ricci says.

“Organizational communication is my jam,” Ricci says. “I love it. I think every professor I’ve had is willing to go out of their way to help me, and the coursework is phenomenal. It’s exactly what I want, and think I should be learning. When I walk out of class, I see what I’m learning in my interpersonal communication. I can see concepts that we’re talking about in class in my life outside of class and that’s amazing.”

Karen Morris, a senior lecturer in communication and journalism, is among the faculty members who helped to get Ricci so excited about her major.

“Every time I walk into her classroom, she is so bubbly and joyful that no matter what is going outside of class I could submerge myself in what I’m learning,” Ricci says of Morris. “She made it memorable.”

Morris describes Ricci as a “gem,” who skillfully built connections in her classes despite the obstacles caused by COVID-19.

“In this age of hybrid courses and face masks, it is difficult to forge the student/teacher relationship when attendance and participation are the exception rather than the rule,” Morris says. “Miranda is the type of student who overcomes the social distance barrier to connect emotionally with her classmates and her professors. So many of us love to teach because of the connections we make with students, and Miranda gave me that connection in a year when it was needed most.”

After earning her degree, Ricci hopes to go to graduate school, and then pursue a career in higher education. Someday, she would like to be a dean of students or in a similar position that will allow her to support students as they pursue their education and their dreams, she says.

“It’s always been my goal to walk through this world and go through my life and make it a better place,” Ricci says. “I want to be a good person who leaves everything better than they found it. So, when I finally understood what a difference higher education could make in my life or the lives of my peers, something sparked inside me.

“I have landed on a major and a career path that is perfect for me. I want students to have everything they need to be successful. I want to make education a better place for every student who wants to be there. As a student, I’ve worked with people who have jobs that I eventually want to have. They’ve had a huge impact on my success and my ability to continue to push myself and continue my education. Countless people made sure I had everything I need to succeed. Now, I want to pay it forward.”