UW-Madison’s CEO Builds a Campus Family for Life

Graduation – family and friends from near and far come for the glorious occasion. But of the various flavors of graduations across the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the tone of every commencement event for the Center for Educational Opportunity – fondly known as CEO – is the joy of an extended campus family that transcends the boundaries between home and college.

Yes, there are tears of joy and I’m-going-to-miss-you-so-much tears. But there also are the heartfelt I-couldn’t-have-made-it-without-you tributes to staff and mentors, the Mom-and-Dad-I-love-you-and-thank-you-so-much speeches in Hmong and Spanish, the please-follow-me appeal to younger siblings, and the complete loss of words as the emotion of the journey overwhelms some graduates.

It never gets old or less fulfilling for the CEO staff and non-traditional students who find their help, their way and their ultimate success within the offices of CEO.  Since 1993 when TRIO Student Support Services first became part of the UW-Madison student assistance menu, there have been nearly 1,000 graduates.  The program has served more than 2,100 students and currently serves 500, ranging from older returning students with families to those for who English is a second language and other underrepresented or first-generation students learning to navigate the challenges of college. The need for CEO’s support services has continued to grow over the years of its existence, said CEO Executive Director Kirk Malnor.

“The growing achievement gap in our country is detrimental to our success as a nation.  The United States needs to boost both its academic and economic competitiveness globally.  To be on par with other nations, the country needs students, no matter their background, who are academically prepared and motivated to achieve success.”

Not having the benefit of experience on where to get help at a university of this size, finding study partners, or talking to someone who understands the exhaustion of a student who also is a parent with very young children is not a deficit; it’s just a reality for some UW-Madison attendees, he added.

“While there are numerous talented and worthy low-income students, relatively few are represented in higher education, particularly at America’s more selective four-year colleges and universities,” Malnor said.  “There is a tremendous gap in educational attainment between America’s highest and lowest income students – despite similar talents and potential.  While nearly 67 percent of high-income, highly-qualified students enroll in four-year colleges, only 47 percent of low-income, highly-qualified students enroll.  Low-income students are being left behind. Only 38 percent of low-income high school seniors go straight to college as compared to 81 percent of their peers in the highest income quartile.”

Through its services, from advising and tutoring to computer access and supportive peers, CEO builds bridges to success and ultimately completing a college degree.

CEO creates an atmosphere that sustains and retains students like Milwaukee native Deiadra Gardner, who worked in the CEO offices as a student assistant and celebrated graduation from UW-Madison in December.

“Deiadra Gardner has been an energetic and active participant in the CEO program,” said CEO Director Kirk Malnor. “I am proud of the woman and professional that she has become. She is on the path to greatness and I am expecting wonderful things from her in the years to come.”

Reflections: Deiadra Gardner In Her Own Words

Deaidra Gardner, far right, celebrates graduation with her CEO friends.

Where are you from?

I am from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Born and raised.

Can you share a little about your pre-college days?

I was a real over-achiever. I excelled in high school, participated a lot, and played sports. I loved to read and write (and still do!), was Student Council Vice President, and went to prom three out of four years. I loved to have fun (and still do!) and always wanted to learn (and still do!).

How and why did you decide to come to UW-Madison?

I was also in a TRIO program during high school called Upward Bound Math & Science. Based out of UW-Milwaukee, I had to participate in the program’s monthly seminars, meetings, and the summer component of the program which included living on campus and travelling around the nation to visit prospective schools. We visited UW-Madison of course, but it was not on my radar. It wasn’t until my senior year in school that I realized how great of a learning institution it was. I only applied to here and Marquette and got to choose between the two, so coming to UW-Madison was a no-brainer.

How has your time here been? Academically? Socially?

My time here has been its own lesson or course, if you will. I learned a lot about social interactions, different cultures and more about my own. I feel so much growth within myself and my intellect that the blood, sweat, and tears feel like they turned into something and were for a reason. It feels like I was here learning more about how the world works. I feel like a very competent young lady because of my education.

As far as socially goes, what I am most interested in doing are things like listening to good music while dancing with my friends or going to a good concert geared to what kind of music I like. These are more difficult to achieve while on campus. Although there is a lot of unity within our campus community, there is still a lot to be desired about the types of activities available for our multi-cultural Badgers. I know we have enough money to bring more valid and well-rounded entertainers for events. For example, the Homecoming celebration has been something I have never participated in, but in high school, you could not pay me to miss one. It’s almost like I feel like I don’t belong or won’t feel comfortable there. They didn’t design these events with me in mind. Why don’t they entice me or my closest peers? I don’t know, but what I do know it is did have some fun, fun times, but our reputation as a party school precedes us. It merely means we know how to drink, but that is not something I always and only want to do.

 How did you get involved with CEO?

During my SOAR, I was fortunate enough to be advised by someone working for the program. She found out about me and my background and gave me an application to apply. I did, and by the start of the school year I was a member. On top of that, by November, they were looking for Office Support. I applied and got an interview and low and behold, the same woman who gave me the application at SOAR was interviewing me! Needless to say, I got the job.

What has the program done for you (in addition to providing a job)?

It has provided advocacy for me, a shoulder to cry on and another set of brains to help me figure life out when things get rough. It has been a place for me to go between classes and never get ill-vibes. It’s been a place that I can call my own, stretch out my wings, and show my personality 100%. It has been the support system I think everyone needs when coming to college.

Tell us about a struggle you may have had that will assure other students CEO can help.

The thing I struggled with most during college is actually finding the strength within me to complete undergrad. CeO really brought into focus how important education is and how there are resources out there for your college career to go more smoothly. If any students of ours have any questions, concerns, or need clarification on things, coming in and asking any staff will ensure your issue gets the attention it deserves. The dedication of our program is remarkable and ensures out ability to assist or get assistance for any of our students.

What would you have done if CEO wasn’t available?

I probably would have scraped by, stayed to myself, and smiled a lot less. No printing, so I would definitely be even MORE poorer, and I may be in need of therapy because I would not have had an outlet available to me that I would have felt comfortable confiding in.

Now tell us your favorite memory or thing about CEO.

My favorite memories include the times when we travel together. I was fortunate enough to go with a few members of our staff to NCORE 2009 and the ACPA Conference of 2010. We presented on our mentoring programs, its affects, and its advantages for bettering our program’s sense of community and our students’ performances. It was so much fun getting to know the staff outside of the office and realizing that they trust me enough to come and represent their program. I was touched and it rejuvenated my drive to finish college.

Now, the moments that made you sad…

The worst memories are probably when staff members have to leave. I have been with the program for over four years now, so I have seen the staff change, come and go. It isn’t too bad; definitely a bittersweet thing. They move on to pursue other opportunities and see the world so you always have to understand that.

You have some very close friends at CEO, tell us about that.

It is my position as a front desk worker combined with the program’s ability to provide an actual center, a headquarters if you wish, for people with common interests and backgrounds to come together and network, support each other, and help make this experience more enjoyable that creates these close ties. Realistically, the friends I have acquired in college are predominantly in the CeO program or in another program with similar initiatives toward getting and keeping underrepresented students in college. We all have similar struggles, so we understand each other. They have my back, and I have their back.

How does it feel to be graduating?

OMGoodness, it feels great. I had exams after the ceremony, but now I am officially done, and I feel so, so accomplished. The blood, sweat, tears, and overall frustration pays off. To be done is liberating.

What will you miss most about UW-Madison or CEO?

Fortunately for me, I will probably be around Madison, the school, and CeO for a little while longer. When I do leave, as I know I one day must, I will miss the genuine spirit and togetherness of our staff. Never have I met, saw, or worked with a staff so in-tune with each other, the tasks that need to get done, and our overall mission of providing adequate support for our students.

What are your future plans?

My future plans are very open right now. I do plan to get my PhD one day; however, I want to make sure of my most prominent interests before I select a program. Being an English major, I feel like I have a lot of wiggle room in regards to me next step professionally. I do want to one day teach English, and a career in student affairs or advocating for education is also enticing.

How would you describe CEO to other students?

It’s like a club or family that you’re a member of. Depending on how much you use it, that determines the depth of your connection to the program. If you never have a place to go, need to study, need to chat with someone, or just need some kind of nourishment (LOL), come to the office and the people there will help, and genuinely care. We promote excelling in one’s schoolwork, so our mission and everything we do is designed around improving one’s environment so they can be competitive students.

Any specific comments for the staff? 

Some members of the CEO staff include from upper left, Wilma Calloway, Toua Thao, Africa Lozano, and center, Billy Hebert.

They are all my family and I know no matter what life brings, we will all stay in  contact. If they ever need anything, I hope they know they can call on me –day or night. Without them my college career would have played out differently. I cannot thank them enough.