Scholarships Recognize Perseverance and Determination
It took “extra effort” for Rachel Thomas to get where she is today.
Born with Larsen Syndrome, a genetic disorder that in her case caused soft body cartilage, hearing loss, and a cleft palette, Thomas was different than her friends and classmates in her hometown of Elroy.
She underwent several surgeries before the age of five. To this day she walks on her toes to stabilize the joints in her knees. She doesn’t run well at all. Stairs are difficult. She needs a wheelchair for long distances. She wears hearing aids.
Determined to not let her disability diminish her life, she focused her energy on academics, at which she excelled. For her determination and hard work, Thomas received an Extra Effort Scholarship to Viterbo University.
The Extra Effort Scholarship recognizes high school seniors who have persevered to overcome obstacles or who have performed outstanding service to their high school and community. The program is a partnership with Viterbo, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Western Technical College, the La Crosse Tribune, and the law firm of Johns, Flaherty & Collins, S.C. One recipient is awarded a one-year, full-tuition scholarship to each school per year. Nominees for the scholarship share their stories in the La Crosse Tribune.
Most people think of scholarships as typically awarded to academically gifted students in need of financial assistance. For this program though, Viterbo officials decided it was equally important to recognize students who possess compelling stories—many of whom have overcome enormous obstacles to make it to the doorsteps of higher education.
What followed were stories that featured many inspiring and heroic accounts of students who conquered disease, broken homes, learning disabilities, and other obstacles that would normally be seen by many as insurmountable.
On May 10, Thomas graduated with a degree in social work. She plans to attend graduate school this fall to earn a master’s degree in her field.
“My goal is to be a special needs adoption social worker,” Thomas said. “Growing up with my own disability, I know how challenging it can be to be different. I would like to find homes for special needs children where they can have a supportive environment and can grow to their full potential.”
Thomas described her childhood as a mixed blessing. “It shaped who I am today,” she said. “I’m very empathetic, and I’m very passionate about helping people with disabilities.”
Receiving the Extra Effort Scholarship meant a great deal to her, she said. “Of course there were money concerns. And I had to go to a small campus,” she said, in reference to her limited mobility.
Thomas offers some advice to people who may find themselves with a disability or obstacle to overcome.
“Definitely don’t give up,” she said. “Look to the people you trust. You’re not alone. Go to your support system, because if they love you, they’ll help you overcome your challenges. Have faith and believe in yourself.”
For Roland “Buzz” Nelson, Viterbo’s vice president for admission, seeing Extra Effort Awards Scholarship recipients succeed is particularly rewarding.
“It recognizes a cohort of disadvantaged students who have historically been unrecognized, and it also ties nicely into the Viterbo strategic plan to provide affordable access and the theme of Hope and Help,” Nelson said.
The program began with the 1997–98 school year, as the idea of then La Crosse Tribune editor and Viterbo alumnus David Stoeffler ’81, although he is quick to point out that it was a collaboration of many people.
He and others at the paper had decided they wanted to do something to address the perception that some people held that the La Crosse Tribune was more interested in stories that reflected negatively on youth, rather than on their positive contributions. In response, the paper devoted an affirming front-page story each day for a month to high school students who were making a positive impact on their community or school.
“The reaction we received was very positive,” Stoeffler said. “We wanted to do more of that.”
After learning of another school that gave scholarships to students who had overcome some sort of obstacle, Stoeffler decided the program would be an excellent fit in La Crosse. The idea of the Extra Effort Scholarship was born.
After discussing the idea with then La Crosse School District Superintendent Dick Swantz, he met with the heads of Viterbo, UW-La Crosse, and Western Technical College, who all quickly agreed to offer a one-year full-tuition scholarship each year to a deserving student. He then explained the program to a group of local high school principals, who were charged with recommending students. The stories currently run weekly in the A+ Achievers section of the paper.
“We weren’t sure that these students would want to share their stories, so we crossed our fingers,” Stoeffler said. “It turned out that we got some great stories about area youth who had experienced hardships, but overall the message in each story was a positive one.”
Looking back at the beginning of the program, Stoeffler said he found it to be very rewarding.
“One of the great things about working in journalism is the responsibility and the great privilege of making a difference in your community,” he said. “And ultimately we were able to do this.”
“I knew a lot of kids who grew up in difficult circumstances,” Stoeffler said. “I wasn’t one of them. I received plenty of encouragement from my parents, and there was never any doubt I could go to college. I saw this as a chance to give these students the same opportunity. I also really hoped other kids would read these stories and say, ‘that’s me’ and be inspired to put their lives together and have a chance at success.”
While Thomas is well on her way to an outstanding career, other Viterbo Extra Effort Award Scholarship winners are also doing well. A new scholarship is awarded each year, and there are currently three more Extra Effort recipients attending Viterbo.
Nursing student Sandy McCullick of Seneca also had her share of obstacles to overcome. When she was 12 years old, her mother died from breast cancer.
“Growing up, it was just my mom and me at home,” she said. “We had a really special bond.”
She moved from Patch Grove to Seneca, where she lived with her sister, and then her father. A few years later, her father’s house burned to the ground while the family was away. She moved back in with her sister.
Overcoming these challenges, she made the most of her time at Seneca High School by helping other students. She was a leader of the school leadership group, Students Helping Area Resistance Efforts (SHARE), which promotes responsible decision-making in response to drugs, alcohol, and relationships.
She said she was “just thrilled” to receive the scholarship, which was a complete surprise. Upon earning a degree in nursing, she would like to work in pediatrics or a neonatal care unit, because she “really likes kids.”
“You have to pick yourself up and keep going,” offered McCullick in the way of advice for dealing with adversity and life’s challenges. “Things will get better, and there are always people around to help you.”
Being the new kid in school is hard enough. Try being new and not knowing a word of English.
That was the obstacle facing junior Spanish major Ismelda Reyes. At 11 years old and in sixth grade, she moved with her brother from their native El Salvador, joining their parents in Norwalk.
“It was like being a baby again,” she said about the language barrier. “But my brother was going through the same thing, and we had each other.”
By the eighth grade, Reyes was “able to understand English and respond back to people.” At Brookwood High School she helped other Hispanic students with English.
Reyes’ family came to America in search of a better life, and now she is the first person in her family to go to college. She described the scholarship as a “great help” that made the decision to attend Viterbo an easy one.
Ashley Misch is a young woman who can take care of herself.
While growing up, most of the adults in her life had issues with alcohol, she said. Her mom and dad divorced when she was in junior high. She spent most of her senior year at Whitehall High School supporting herself.
When not working, she concentrated her energies on academics. She was rewarded with a spot on the honor roll and the Extra Effort Award Scholarship.
“I was shaking and crying,” she said in describing the moment when the scholarship was announced. “I’m thankful beyond words.”
Misch will begin her career at Viterbo this fall. The profession of nursing is a perfect fit for her, because she has always liked helping people, and is very interested in health care and the human body, she said.
For Nelson, he never grows tired of hearing the inspiring stories of students like Thomas, McCullick, Reyes, and Misch.
“These are students who are mature beyond their age,” Nelson said. “It takes tremendous courage to overcome this type of adversity and Viterbo is honored to recognize this ‘extra effort’ with a scholarship that rewards their strength of character.”