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School and college experiences help Blugold find future career path

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: After graduating with a biology degree this month, Ryan Pelle plans to return to college to complete a degree in teaching. He discovered a passion for teaching during his time at UW-Eau Claire, and now plans to continue his studies so he can teach science in a middle or high school.

Though Ryan Pelle comes from a family of teachers and his high school classmates voted him “most likely to be a teacher,” the Rice Lake native didn’t see himself as a future educator when he first came to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Now, as Pelle graduates this month with a degree in biology-liberal arts and a minor in music-percussion, he is eagerly looking forward to taking his next steps toward what he hopes will be a future career in teaching science to middle or high schoolers.

His post-graduation plans include gaining experience in the classroom working as a substitute teacher, and then returning to college to earn a degree in education so he can teach at the secondary level.

What changed? Mostly, his perspective.

“Growing up, there were some things about school that just bugged me,” Pelle says of his initial reluctance to consider a career in teaching. “But as I started to figure out why I felt that way, I realized what bothered me are things I can help change. I know I can help students have a good experience in school, and that’s something I really want to do.”

Pelle was well into his junior year before deciding that teaching was the right path for him. Since he already was so involved in his biology and music studies, he decided to complete those academic programs, gain experience and money through substitute teaching, and then return to college to focus on teacher education.

“My mom and grandpa are teachers, so I think education is an interest they passed down to me,” says Pelle, noting that they helped him understand the importance of advocating for strong public education systems. “I did not read the signs that I should be a teacher initially, but I believe I can make a difference in public education, so this is the path I want to follow.

“I came to UW-Eau Claire expecting to become a field biologist, but my experiences here helped me figure out where I belong, and I think that is in a classroom.”

A passion for biology and music

Both biology and music were huge interests as he was growing up, so he knew coming into college that he wanted to include both disciplines in his studies, Pelle says.

He chose UW-Eau Claire because of its strong music and science programs, Pelle says, adding that he also already knew a lot about the campus because he comes from a family of Blugolds. His parents, Eric Pelle and Amy (Stevens) Pelle, and his brother, Aaron Pelle, all are UW-Eau Claire graduates.

As he began considering potential future careers, Pelle says he recognized that making a living as a professional musician would be a challenge for him, especially as a percussionist. He also knew that music education was not the right fit for him either, he says.

“When I came around to the idea of being a teacher, I knew I wanted to teach biology,” Pelle says. “I spent a lot of time outside when I was a kid, so biology has always been an interest. I also had a really good biology teacher in high school who got me interested in things like aquatic ecology.”

His experiences in UW-Eau Claire’s science programs — both in and out of the classroom — made him even more eager to study science and to someday teach it, Pelle says.

“Once I was at UW-Eau Claire, I realized that it is science in general, not just biology, that I love,” Pelle says. “So, I know I will have a good time teaching science at a middle or high school.”

Among the highlights of his outside-the-classroom experiences at UW-Eau Claire was being part of a faculty-student research team that spent a summer studying deep-water mosses and aquatic life in Wisconsin lakes.

The collaborative nature of the research project helped him grow academically and personally, he says, noting that he gained research skills but also other skills that will help him in the future. For example, he learned to work as part of a team and to problem solve when things did not go as planned.

“Those are things you can’t really learn in a classroom but will help me in the future, especially as a teacher,” Pelle says.

Making connections through music

While he enjoyed his biology studies, Pelle says he also found a home in UW-Eau Claire’s music department.

“Music was a big part of my time here,” Pelle says. “I spent so much time in the music department that it almost felt like I had a double major. It was a lot of work, but it was so rewarding that it was worth it.

“I can’t fully put into words how to describe the community in the music department. The people there are so driven. We all spend so much time working together and relying on each other that you get to know everyone. It’s a community and an environment that is just really positive.”

Pelle says it was an honor to learn from and alongside the talented musicians who make up UW-Eau Claire’s music faculty and students.

“There are so many amazing musicians that I felt lucky to get to work with them,” Pelle says. “The professors are the nicest people, amazing educators and incredible musicians.”

The feeling of performing with other Blugolds who share his passion for music is special, Pelle says.

“After a performance, there is this feeling ‘wow,’ that’s something really cool that we just did together,” says Pelle, who was part of Symphony Band and several percussion ensembles during his college career. “It gives me chills because it’s so fun and exhilarating.”

Blugold Marching Band

Still another highlight of Pelle’s college experience was being a member of the Blugold Marching Band.

While he had heard about the BMB from older friends and his high school band director, he had no idea just what he was getting into when he decided to audition for the drum line, Pelle says, noting the first time he was on campus as a student was for his first BMB rehearsals.

“It was incredible,” Pelle says of BMB. “I made all these friends my first day at college, we performed at all the footballs games and we traveled all over the place. We performed for high school students who were so excited to see us. Everything about it was so much fun.”

Pelle was among the BMB members who traveled to Australia and New Zealand in January, where they performed to large audiences on cruise ships and at other venues.

“BMB already was such a great experience and then I got to travel with my friends to the other side of the world,” Pelle says. “It was just a crazy experience.”

Part of what he liked about BMB was how different it was from everything else he was involved with on campus, Pelle says.

“Obviously, it was totally different than anything in biology, but it also was different than the other things I was doing in music,” Pelle says. “It took a lot of time, but it is such an amazing thing to be part of; some of my best memories of college are from BMB.”

Embracing every opportunity

As he looks ahead to a career in education, Pelle says he made the most of the many opportunities he found at UW-Eau Claire to broaden his thinking and understanding.

Some of those opportunities came in places he expected, such as in his biology classrooms, Honors courses and in his research.

But he also found learning opportunities in unexpected places, including in his part-time job as a student custodian. To keep his mind occupied as he worked, Pelle began listening to podcasts.

“I couldn’t believe the enriching content about all kinds of topics,” Pelle says. “So much of school is about reading and writing, but podcasts are about listening to people. It was incredible to hear these experts — people who’ve worked in their fields for decades — share their expertise in their own voices.

“We don’t always think about the value of hearing people talk. Podcasts are unedited and genuine, and I got to listen to them for 10-12 hours a week while I worked a campus job. I was getting all this great advice and knowledge while I did general upkeep at Haymarket Landing. It’s incredible how much I learned.”

His experience with the podcasts also is helping to shape his thinking about how he would like to someday teach, Pelle says. For example, he wants to incorporate a variety of voices in his classroom, something that technology makes possible, he says.

“There is so much students can gain from podcasts and other media,” Pelle says. “Reading and writing have great value but so does hearing someone’s tone and their expressions as they share information. As a future teacher, I want to use a variety of media and tools to help students learn.”

Discovering podcasts thanks to a part-time campus job also is a good reminder that there are learning opportunities everywhere if you look for them, Pelle says.

An advocate for change

While Pelle is eager to make a difference in the lives of his future students, he hopes that as an educator he also eventually will have opportunities to help shape the future of public education.

“I’ve spent a lot of my free time thinking about how my experiences in school could have been more effective,” Pelle says. “College has helped me process and understand my own experiences better. I want to use what I have learned to help make sure students can have even better experiences.

“Our goal should be to build on the things that are working well and find ways to improve the things that are not working for many students, so all students receive the best experience possible in school. There are ways to make public education even stronger and better, and I want to be part of making that happen.”

For example, he would like to see less emphasis on standardized test scores in school systems and more focus on ensuring students understand how what they are learning fits into a bigger picture, Pelle says.

“One thing I realized from my own time in school is that many classes were about memorizing materials so I could take a test,” Pelle says. “But often all I was doing was memorizing facts; I wasn’t learning in a way where I could see how what I was studying added value to the world or my life.”

The Honors courses he took at UW-Eau Claire reflect the kind of learning he would like to see more of in classrooms at all levels, Pelle says.

“These classes, which are largely discussion-based, are the classes I will remember the most because they’re where I learned the most,” Pelle says. “They focus on understanding something about the world and understanding how other people see and talk to other people about it. They are about digging into what is significant about a topic. That’s what I want to see even more of in all schools.”

It was one of his Honors classes that also helped him better understand how important it is for teachers and schools to have the resources they need to help meet the needs of students whose lives are difficult for any number of reasons, Pelle says.

“We learned about the different health-related issues that many kids face,” Pelle says of the class, which was taught by the Chippewa County Health Department director. “Whether it's kids with mental health issues or other challenges outside of school, we learned about the lifelong problems they can have if no one intervenes early. Early intervention is critical.”

While he knows change in education systems will come slowly, Pelle says he is ready to do his part to keep the conversation moving forward.

“I know it will take time to change the system, but in a classroom, I can have an immediate impact,” Pelle says. “I think I can be part of a solution by doing a lot of good for students in my classroom.”