New grad living in the fast lane

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

Breah Ostertag is not one to shy away from a challenge nor an opportunity.

So when the Oshkosh native arrived at UW-Eau Claire with a hefty number of college credits already in hand, she quickly set her sights on graduating early.

How early?

After just two years as a Blugold, Ostertag will earn her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice this month.

With 42 AP and other college credits on her transcript when she became a Blugold, Ostertag knew that if she took Winterim and summer classes, she could finish her degree in just two years.

In addition to saving a significant amount of money by graduating two years early, Ostertag also gained confidence from achieving such an ambitious goal.

“It’s kind of my personality that when given an opportunity to do something really cool, I really go for it,” Ostertag says. “Once I figured out that I had an opportunity to graduate in two years, I decided that’s what I'm going to do, and I did it.”

Even more impressive?

The 20-year-old already has more than a year experience working in law enforcement and has a job offer from a police department in Northeastern Wisconsin.

For more than a year, Ostertag has worked as a community services officer with the Eau Claire Police Department. She spends her time enforcing animal control and parking ordinances in the city, as well as helping police officers with a variety of tasks.

She’s fortunate, she says, to be working in law enforcement at the same time she’s studying criminal justice.

“It’s interesting to bring my classroom experiences into the field and the field experiences into the classroom,” Ostertag says.

These and many other opportunities she’s found on campus — in and out of the classroom — as well as in the community have allowed her to make the most of her two years at UW-Eau Claire, she says.

A welcoming, inclusive campus

The minute she came for a campus tour, Ostertag knew UW-Eau Claire was the right place for her.

At UW-Eau Claire she found a beautiful campus, a respected criminal justice program and people who share her passion for music.

“I wanted to go to a school that valued culture and music,” says Ostertag, who has played piano for many years. “I knew I wouldn’t have time to actually take a music course, but it’s great that so many of my friends are involved in music, band, choirs and theater. I genuinely love going to their performances. I’m passionate about music, and it means a lot that music also is important to UW-Eau Claire.”

Equally meaningful, she says, is being part of a community that welcomes and celebrates all students.  

“I fell in love with the beautiful campus, but I also really appreciated the LGBTQ inclusivity,” Ostertag says. “In Wisconsin, it can be hard to find places that are so all-around inclusive. UW-Eau Claire made sure to let us know as incoming students that everyone would be accepted here.”

Two years later, she’s still impressed.

“There is a lot of acceptance here,” Ostertag says. “There are a lot of different life choices and different ideas here, but everybody is so respectful of others’ ideas and lives. I’ve not come across any hate here.”

UW-Eau Claire’s National Coming Out Day, which includes a celebration on the campus mall, is among her favorite days of the year.

“It’s so wonderful to go with my straight and queer friends and have a day when sexuality is celebrated and not feel like I have to blend in with the crowd,” Ostertag says.

While Ostertag identifies as a queer person, she no longer feels the need to put a label on herself.

“Over my time here, I’ve felt less of a need to identify myself and instead to just be the person that I am,” she says.

Finding her future career

Coming to UW-Eau Claire, Ostertag knew that she wanted to major in criminal justice because it offers so many different and interesting career possibilities.

She was far less sure about what she would do with the major, however.

After working with Eau Claire police officers, she now plans to pursue a career in law enforcement.

“It’s a field that I fell in love with and I know that this is what I want to do,” Ostertag says. “It’s incredible to watch how police officers go about daily life, helping people and changing lives even though people often do not see it.

“I want to live my life serving others and helping people live their best lives. Being a police officer is the best way for me to do it.”

Working alongside police officers at the same time she was studying criminal justice has been a powerful experience, Ostertag says, noting that what she sees in the field often reinforces what she’s learning in the classroom.

Everyone benefits when students share their real-world experiences with their peers, she says.

“You can’t fully learn some things until you’re out in the world,” Ostertag says. “So, my experiences as a community service officer are really great to bring into the classroom. There also are a ton of other students working in victim services, at domestic abuse shelters or as social work interns, so it’s great to learn from them and their experiences, too.”

Her job with the local police department, along with her studies in criminal justice, have helped her gain confidence and strengthen her communication and problem-solving skills, she says.

Confidence and strong interpersonal skills will be especially important since she is a 20-year-old woman entering the traditionally male-dominated field of law enforcement, Ostertag says.

Already, she says, she’s found ways to diffuse tense situations, peacefully resolving conflicts.

Her approach seems to be resonating with potential employers, Ostertag says, noting that she already has one job offer.

“In the interview, I talked about the things I learned in school and from working for the Eau Claire Police Department,” Ostertag says. “I talked about inclusivity, about promoting peace, and being respectful of all people and all lifestyles. I guess that really resonated with them because they made me an early offer. They didn’t want to lose me to another department.”

Photo caption: Breah Ostertag is ready to begin a career in law enforcement after earning a criminal justice degree in just two years. While going to college, she also worked as a community services officer for the Eau Claire Police Department.