UW-Stout: Scholars look forward to normal fall semester after 1½ years of adapting to pandemic changes

Menomonie, Wis. – When University of Wisconsin-Stout moved to an alternative learning method in March 2020 because of COVID-19, Erin O’Brien and Nathan Thompson left campus to finish their first years of college at home.

Having just completed their 2020-21 sophomore years, in which UW-Stout had about 50% in-person classes, they are reflecting on positive experiences but eagerly looking ahead. UW-Stout is planning for a normal fall semester to start the 2021-22 academic year, with in-person classes and activities.

“I am ecstatic to be attending live lectures and in-person events at Stout this fall. Hands-on learning is the reason I decided to enroll at UW-Stout, and I look forward to getting the most out of my education this year,” Thompson said.

Thompson, of Woodville, wants to apply his learning to projects that change lives. He is a double major in applied science and mechanical engineering.

O’Brien, of South Haven, Minn., is an applied mathematics and computer science major with a concentration in math education. She has always wanted to be a teacher. “My mother was a gym teacher and a community education director, so I practically grew up in my school,” she said. “I was fortunate to have some very influential teachers in my life.”

Both are recipients of the Stout Scholars Scholarship, which awards them $5,000 a year, renewable for up to four years, or a maximum of $20,000.

Although her scholarship affords her some financial comfort, O’Brien worked two jobs in summer 2020 to build a good cushion throughout the year and to save for her goal of studying abroad.

And Thompson’s scholarship is a source of financial relief for his family, helping to cover his dining and housing, as well as his differential tuition.

“As a mechanical engineering student, my differential tuition funds the variety of equipment that I use in the labs. The scholarship is a huge advantage toward paying for my degree,” he said.

O’Brien’s and Thompson’s full first-year and second-year stories are available on the UW-Stout website.

Returning to campus and adjusting to changes

When they returned to campus last fall, O’Brien and Thompson knew the look and feel of campus would be different. With on-campus students regularly testing for COVID-19, cleaning shared learning and living spaces, and self-isolation when needed, there were many regulations to follow.

“I was excited to start school again,” O’Brien said. “After five months away, I was ready to go back to Stout.”

And with students having about 50% of their classes online this past year, O’Brien and Thompson adjusted to virtual learning as well. But they both feel they learn better in person and struggled with the new learning environment. They were glad to have more in-person classes in the spring.

“I want to explore all the opportunities available at UW-Stout. I want to work in the labs, make things and learn how the world works,” Thompson said.

In his in-person Fluid Mechanics and Circuits and Devices courses, Thompson could use all the equipment in the labs.

“The courses spend lots of time applying our lectures to the lab setting, which has helped me understand how the concepts are applied to real life. Attending labs in person are a gratifying experience of attending UW-Stout,” he said.

Despite such drastic changes to campus life, O’Brien felt more comfortable than during her first year, when she struggled with homesickness and new levels of anxiety. Her basketball coaches and teammates were a strong support group away from home, and she knew she could reach out if she needed help.

“I am closer to my team than ever and I feel like I am more able to step outside of my comfort zone and be myself,” she said. “My goal for this year is to make sure that I work hard at what I love and try not to let my self-doubts get in the way of what I want to do. I think I really can achieve this goal because I have the best support system behind me.”

Campus involvement and opportunities

Because of the pandemic, organizing events posed challenges across campus this past year. Student-led organizations, campus employees and athletics adhered to university health and safety policies like masking and social distancing. But this didn’t stop O’Brien and Thompson. They were involved across different areas of campus.

In the spring, Thompson started as a lab technician at the 3D Printing Lab in Jarvis Hall Technology Wing. The lab hosts a number of commercial printers and is used by mechanical engineering students for printing materials and completing capstone projects, he explained.

He remained active in the Academic Honors Society, Stout Ministry, Engineers Without Borders and the American Foundry Society, for which he serves as the chapter secretary. He thinks leadership opportunities through extracurricular activities help prepare students for the future.

“I would highly recommend that students contact the Academic Honor Society if they want to find out more about volunteering opportunities. Whether you are looking for a chance to network with the community or build your resume, there are plenty of opportunities available,” Thompson said.

O’Brien was a teaching assistant in the Math Teaching and Learning Center and serves as treasurer for AMCS Women’s Group. The group met virtually and in person for study meet-ups, game nights and industry presentations by professors and professionals.

“I think being a part of any group on campus is just a good way to get involved. It gets you out of your dorm and interacting with new people. I think that everybody should at least explore joining one group or club at college,” she said.

O’Brien also plays center for the Blue Devils women’s basketball team. The Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference approved conference competition beginning Feb. 1 for athletics after an 11-month hiatus. O’Brien was the first student athlete to be named Athlete of the Week after play began.

“Getting back onto the court was amazing. Even though it was a short season, I’m glad we got the chance to play together. Even with all the challenges, our team showed up to compete every game.”

O’Brien and Thompson were excited to finish spring semester on campus. This summer, O’Brien is looking forward to traveling, basketball club, moving off campus and her new job at a Menomonie supper club. Thompson is hoping to start his internship with an engineering firm.

“It’s nice to get back to seeing people again and being in the presence of others. It’s not to be taken for granted,” O’Brien said.

UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes.