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Grad fulfills promise to late mother as she becomes first in family to earn degree

| Judy Berthiaume

When thousands of Eau Claire Marathon runners pass through campus May 7, they can thank Madison Joy for the festive crowds that will be there to cheer them on.

A UW-Eau Claire senior, Mady is the event planning director for the Blugold Mile, a stretch of the race that takes athletes through the heart of the UW-Eau Claire campus, where hundreds of Blugolds will use their voices, their music and, occasionally, a squirt gun to give runners a much appreciated late-in-the-race energy boost.

“We have an amazing group of people who have come together to make this event bigger and better than ever,” Mady, an integrated strategic communication major, says of what has become one of the most popular parts of the Eau Claire Marathon.

While bringing the Blugold Mile to life after months of planning will be a major accomplishment, the Madison native is even more excited about an another soon-to-be-celebrated achievement — her college graduation.

Growing up, Mady remembers how hard her mother worked to provide for her and her brother.

She also remembers her mother making her promise that someday she would see Mady cross the stage to accept her college diploma.

Unfortunately, Mady’s mother passed away in 2008, well before Mady was old enough to make her mom’s wish come true.

“All I ever wanted was to make her proud and fulfill my promise to her,” Mady says. “I knew I was going to college and I was going to do what I needed to do to succeed.”

Mady will keep her promise to her late mother when she crosses the stage in Zorn Arena in May, becoming the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

“Although she won’t be in the crowd May 20, she drove me to go to college and is one of the many reasons I am who I am today,” Mady says of her mother. “I also was lucky enough to be taken in by my Aunt Julie and Uncle Jim, who helped to continue raising me, and instilled in me the importance of working hard and doing my best. Without these three driving forces, I would not be where I am today.

“I have worked so hard and overcame so much to get where I am. Walking across that stage will be the proudest moment of my life.”

The day will be even more special because her grandparents, aunt and uncle, brother and her boyfriend all will travel to Eau Claire for commencement.

“Though she won’t physically be there, my mom will be in my heart as I walk across the stage,” Mady says. “My family has put so much time and effort into seeing me succeed, so I walk across that stage not just for me, but for all of them as well.”

As a first-generation college student, Mady says she had no idea what to look for in a college when she started her search a few years ago.

“I was just hoping someplace would accept me,” Mady says. “That all changed when I toured UW-Eau Claire. The second I stepped foot on campus I knew this is where I was meant to be.”

The beauty of the campus, class sizes, the upper and lower campus layout, and the distance from home were among the many features that won her over, she says.

While she quickly decided where she would go to college, knowing what to study was a much greater challenge.

“The road to my major was a rocky one,” Mady says. “My freshman year I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life and, with pressure to decide, I started telling everyone I was going to be a nurse. Little did I know how hard anatomy was; I was not meant to be a nursing student.”

Eventually, she settled on integrated strategic communication, a field that aligns with her interests and talents, and offers a variety of career options.

Mady credits UW-Eau Claire’s Collegiate Bridge Program (now called Student Support Program) — an academic program that supports first-year students — with helping her build the study and organization skills she needed to be successful as a college student.

“Being a first-generation college student has been an adventure,” Mady says. “The biggest challenges I faced were building the study skills and transitioning into college. Coming into UW-Eau Claire, I had no clue what to expect and had to build from the ground up. The Collegiate Bridge Program provided excellent help in bringing my study skills up to speed, and afforded me the opportunity to lay a solid framework for my success.”

Her goals for her college years included making her family proud, gaining new skills and knowledge, and enjoying a new adventure.

“UW-Eau Claire has given me everything I expected and more,” Mady says. “I expected college to be a challenge and allow me to grow as a young adult; that is just what Eau Claire did, but they added some great experiences and great people to go along with it.

“I have the skills to learn and succeed, not just in my time here, but for the rest of my life. UW-Eau Claire also provided me with friends that have become family.”

Highlights of her time on campus include interesting research, life-changing immersion trips, challenging classes, caring professors and lifelong friendships, Mady says.

Many of those experiences, she says, were possible because of Collegiate Bridge and its director, Holly Hassemer.

“As a freshman, Collegiate Bridge provided me with the skills to succeed in college, friends that I still talk to today, and introduced me to the finer aspects of research, which led me to my major,” Mady says. “Holly invited me back my sophomore year to be a mentor with the new class as they made their journey through research for the first time. This was such a great opportunity, and taught me how to be a better leader.

“Holly is a role model I have looked up to since the first day of my freshman year. She has a passion to help students succeed and drive them to be their best.”

The varied experiences she’s had as a Blugold, as well as the relationships she formed here, all have changed and shaped her life in unexpected ways, Mady says.

“UW-Eau Claire has given me the opportunity to connect with people with all different backgrounds,” Mady says. “It has shown me how to question the world, and how to see the world from different points of view and not just my own view.”

So what advice does she have for other first-generation Blugolds?

“College can be hard and it is easy to give up, but it’s the challenges you push through that make you a better person,” Mady says. “Taking chances is how you grow.

“As a first-generation student, it can be easy to find your comfort zone and to stay in it because that's where you feel you will succeed. Taking chances and challenging yourself is why you are the first one to come to college; you should take every chance you have to experience something new. Even if you don’t like it, you will at least learn something from it.”

As the soon-to-be college graduate looks to her future, she is taking the time to celebrate what she already has accomplished.

“College is all about working hard and figuring out what you want your life to be,” Mady says. “I am most proud that I did not let anything or anyone hold me back, and I gave college my all. I am proud that I figured out who I am and where I want to go in life.”

Photo caption: Madison Joy will keep her promise to her late mother when she crosses the stage in Zorn Arena in May, becoming the first person in her family to earn a college degree.