FAYETTE, Iowa (May 12, 2014) – More than five years ago, Karen Hanson and Jennifer Steen, friends from Medford, Wis., decided to do something crazy. Both had families and had worked together for 20 years at the Nestlé Pizza Division in Medford. With one another as support, the two took a leap of faith on an educational journey that first included an associate's degree. Then, the "sisters by choice" kept the momentum going and enrolled at Upper Iowa University-Wausau. It will be August when they complete their bachelor's degrees in business management, but the two women participated in UIU's 2014 commencement ceremony this weekend.
"We were just two women wanting to set a great example for our kids, demonstrating to them that they can achieve anything if they really apply themselves," said Hanson. "Coupled with the determination to move up in the company, we decided to take the leap together and go to college. We agreed to be each other's support system when things got tough."
Life did throw the friends trials along the way. Hanson lost a couple of loved ones over the past five years and then, last year, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Jenn has pulled me through those times and kept me on track for my degree," she said. "She never let me give up. We've sat together many times in hospital waiting rooms and working on schoolwork to pass the time."
When Steen went into labor with her youngest daughter, the pair was putting together a presentation for a class assignment. "There we sat working in her dining room as I timed her contractions to monitor when we all would leave for the hospital," said Hanson. "The day after Kaitlyn was born, the hospital set up a telecommunication conference with the center so we could deliver our presentation."
Hanson, 44, and Steen, 38, admit that, at times, their husbands and children would lose patience and challenge their decision to work toward their degrees, but they creatively came up with ways to maintain a sense of normalcy all while getting their coursework done. "We would arrange camping trips with our families, always making sure we had access to our laptops, schoolbooks and the Internet!" said Hanson. "We have so many great memories because of it, and a great friendship, too!"
Last year, the pair took time off work to travel to the Fayette, Iowa, campus for an accelerated course taught by adjunct instructor and UIU Board of Trustee member Betty Firth. Hanson said they loved it, and were excited to be included on this year's accelerated course promotional video.
If Hanson could impart a piece of advice to an adult wanting to pursue their degree, it is this: "I encourage others to find a 'buddy' to make the journey with," she said. "Someone to encourage you, push you and help you find the strength to keep going. UIU gives us the tools to earn a college degree in our adult years, but the real strength comes from within and from those around us. Jenn has been my biggest supporter and we have developed a friendship I will cherish forever."
About Upper Iowa University Founded in 1857, Upper Iowa University is a private, not-for-profit university providing undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 6,200 students – nationally and internationally – at its Fayette campus and learning centers worldwide. Upper Iowa University is a recognized innovator in offering accredited, quality programs through flexible, multiple delivery systems, including online and self-paced degree program. With a focus on developing leaders and lifelong learners, UIU provides dual enrollment programs for high school students as well as continuing education and professional development opportunities for learners of any age. For more information, visit www.uiu.edu.
Monica Bayer Heaton
Associate Vice President for Communication and Marketing