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Why I give

Editor's note: Patti See, distinguished student services coordinator in UW-Eau Claire's Academic Skills Center and a senior lecturer in women's studies, made the following remarks during the recent UW-Eau Claire Foundation Employee Appreciation Luncheon for all university faculty and staff. Her remarks are published here with her permission. 

I'm honored to be selected to offer a few remarks today. It's hard to talk about giving without sounding — as my dad used to say — as if I'm tooting my own horn. I don't want to do that. I can't even write a Christmas letter and send it out. Not my style. 

Chancellor Schmidt often talks about "The Stories We Tell" ... I've been known to tell a story or two.  

This is my story. My first job was at The Falls Drive-In as a carhop. For those of you younger folks: that means I sat outside next to a small red hut and carried food out on a metal tray that attached to a car window. I remember how mind-numbingly dull it was to sit there on my red bar stool at the outdoor counter on slow days — watching the cars go by and waiting for someone to stop for a root beer float or a zebra cone. Back when I was fifteen, I didn't know what kind of career I could hope for, but I knew that I wanted it to be engaging, creative, meaningful to myself and others. I found that here.

I have worked on this campus for 21 years now — mostly with at-risk students. Mine might be the last generation for whom it's possible to have one employer and grow there: entry-level through to retirement. I know I'm blessed to be in such a position. I'm also probably one of the last people in the world to list "carhop" as a job.

I've been asked to talk a little bit about why I give to the Foundation. In order to answer that I need to go back to my parents. My mom and dad both came from farm families — my mom was one of 15 children — and my parents both survived the Depression. My dad is 89 now and he still remembers when the local bank collapsed in Junction City, Wisconsin, and he lost his life savings: 12 dollars and 12 cents. Big money for a 9-year-old in 1935. The bank president killed himself by eating rat poison. When my dad told me this story as a kid, I made the leap in my mind that this banker offed himself just because of my dad's money. 

My parents saved and reused pretty much everything. I was embarrassed by them reusing bath water — yes, we took baths in each other's water, but fortunately I was the youngest so I got to go first — and laundry water, growing their own food, saving scraps of tinfoil ... but now it would be called being green. 

I'm the youngest of eight children. My dad worked for the railroad, my mom never worked outside of the home. Money was often tight but they always gave: they tithed to the church; they volunteered constantly: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church, school, service organizations. They also always shared part of anything they had with friends and strangers. Giving was just part of their life. 

Why I give also comes from my own experiences at UWEC as a student. My senior year of college, just a few months before graduation, I got pregnant. I was 22 years old — and very freaked out by this surprise that put a small dent in my plans for graduate school. I wouldn't be standing here today without the people who helped me — who went "above and beyond" for me. My literature and creative writing faculty:  Jane Betts, Carol Fairbanks, John Hildebrand, Karen Loeb — who mentored me, encouraged me and gave me direction. 

My life could have turned out many other ways. Nadine St. Louis sponsored the Clara B. Smalls Scholarship in honor of her mother, and it funded much of my master's degree in English at UWEC. I knew Dr. St. Louis only as the chair of the English department, and I was always a little scared of her. I later became friends with Dina, but it wasn't until she died and I read in her obituary that she was UWEC's first assistant to the chancellor for affirmative action and the first female chair of the University Senate. Her long legacy lives on. Since 1982, her scholarship has helped many nontraditional students earn a degree in English. Thanks to Nadine's husband, the scholarship continues today. 

UW-Eau Claire has been very good to me: a quality education, mentors who not only changed my life but changed my life's work, an academic staff position that allowed me opportunities to grow and advance to a distinguished student services coordinator. And I found not one but two husbands here.

I think of giving back as my "rent for being in the world." I heard someone use that phrase many years ago and fell in love with that as a reason to give. Since I'm speaking publicly, I figured I should Google that before I pass it off as my own. Turns out Muhammed Ali said, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."  

I have many blessings; my rent is high. Some of you know that about 10 years ago I donated a kidney to a stranger as part of a Good Samaritan program at the University of Minnesota; last summer I donated bone marrow to my older brother who has cancer.  

Now my husband calls me "spare parts." After the governor's budget passes he'll be calling me "spare change." 

None of us went into this work to get rich — whatever your role might be at UW-Eau Claire. Every day in the Student Success Center I see my colleagues going above and beyond to make a difference in the lives of students who are struggling academically, socially, even emotionally. Students who are the first in their family to go to college and feel that pressure to succeed and pave the way for younger siblings or cousins, returning adult students who need to learn how to use D2L and how to prepare for exams, probation-after-suspension students who need encouragement and support so that this time around they can succeed.  

My fellow women's studies affiliates live their work. Each day in the classroom they put their ideology into action, and they model what it means to be student-centered and activist. They go above and beyond to help students find their voices and their paths.  

We have a governor who thinks faculty work 12 hours a week; the opinion of much of the public — even that of many of our neighbors and friend — is that ANY state employee is overpaid. 

The idealistic part of me wants to say No matter what, we have to continue going above and beyond. The realistic side of me knows we all have limitations of time and resources and many of us have exhausted ours. I see it on the faces of department program assistants, full professors, custodians and even the perpetually cheery staff in my office. We are all worn down.  

But we give what we can when we can however we can. Giving isn't just about an oversize check at the welcome breakfast in the fall, though I'm sure no such check has ever been turned down.  

For me giving is really about "giving back."

In 2001, I established two creative writing scholarships awarded to students during Women's History Month each year. The Joseph and Virgiline Poetry Award is in honor of my parents, and preference is given to first-generation, low-income students, like my siblings and I were many years ago. The Tillie Olsen Prose Award is in honor of Tillie Olsen, a union organizer in the 1930s and a feminist writer who was the topic of my master's thesis. 

These awards are one way that I'm paying my rent to the world. I have many blessings: good health, family and friends I adore, a job I've loved for over 20 years. I got here with the help of others. I can never pay back Nadine St. Louis or her mother Clara Smalls, but I can make a difference for students like ... 

Terri — a single mom with Lupus who came back to school and balanced work, kids and classes and found time to write. 

Or Nancy — a returning adult student whose award-winning paper explored the stigma she felt: when she was young blindness was called a "handicap"; now it is called a "disability." She challenged herself to come out of her shell and earn a degree in social work. 

Or Dessa — who brought her whole family to the awards ceremony and Mom and Dad were so proud (and surprised) that their daughter won money for writing poems.  

And that's why I give back.