When UW-Stout moved to an alternative learning method in March 2020 because of COVID-19, Stout Scholar Erin O’Brien left campus to finish her first year of college at home in South Haven, Minn.
O’Brien’s Stout Scholars Scholarship is $5,000, renewable for up to four years, or a maximum of $20,000. O’Brien, who just completed her sophomore year, is determined to make the best of her time at UW-Stout.
Although her scholarship affords her some financial comfort, she worked two jobs this past summer with friends at a local lodge and concession stand to build a good cushion throughout the year. She vacationed with her family, staying close to home in Minnesota and Wisconsin and kept in shape for basketball, staying in touch virtually with her teammates.
“I had a really good summer after my first year. I was going to miss my friends back home, but I was excited to start school again,” she said. “After five months away, I was ready to go back to Stout.”
Back on campus
O’Brien is an applied mathematics and computer science major with a concentration in math education. She always wanted to be a teacher when she was younger. “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.”
With students having about 50% of their classes online this year, O’Brien had two in-person classes each semester. She enjoyed her math and education classes but struggled with some of her online courses in math and feels she’s a better in-person learner.
Life on campus and in the dorms was also different, which O’Brien expected, she said. She had to quarantine the first two weeks of school. “It wasn’t how I pictured starting my sophomore year, but it wasn’t too bad. I got to go home and quarantine with my mom because she had COVID as well. So at least I got to sleep in my own bed and see my dog,” she said.
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.”
Involvement on campus and planning ahead
O’Brien serves as the treasurer for AMCS Women’s Group and is excited to build the student organization. The group met virtually and in person for study meet-ups, game nights and industry presentations by professors and professionals. O’Brien enjoyed learning about what is going on in the math world, she said.
“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. “Especially this year, I am glad to be in AMCS Women’s Group. I got to see my friends and have more social interaction.”
O’Brien worked on campus as a teaching assistant in the Math Teaching and Learning Center. “Working as a teaching assistant is like a teaching experience every day. It helps me use methods and skills I have learned in my education class and apply them with actual students,” she said. “I have always wanted to help my peers when they struggled with math.”
The Math TLC worked around her schedule, so her job didn’t interfere with her schoolwork or basketball. “It is also really nice to get a little income during the year, so I do not have to use my summer money. I can save it for studying abroad next year,” she added. “Studying abroad has always been a dream of mine. I try to save money where I can.”
O’Brien received a microscholarship for study abroad. However, with study abroad on hold until fall 2021, she had to postpone her plans to take a two-week faculty-led sustainability course in Hawaii until summer 2022. She also hopes to take a math teaching course in Budapest, Hungary.
“Receiving this scholarship just gets me one step closer to my goal,” she said.
Playing through challenges together
After the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference canceled all competitions from March 2020 through the fall semester, O’Brien’s biggest hope was to have some sort of season with her Blue Devils basketball team.
Before the season started, they met for workouts and conditioning. Wearing masks and staying socially distanced was a learning curve, said O’Brien, who plays center. But the team’s camaraderie helped it adjust to the changes.
“We hung out as a team a lot just to make sure we had team bonding experiences. I am glad we could get into the gym and were able to do what we love,” she said.
On Dec. 11, 2020, WIAC approved conference competition to open Feb. 1, 2021 for winter athletics. O’Brien was the first student athlete to be named Athlete of the Week after play began.
The Blue Devils competed in nine games in one month. Practicing every day but Saturday, it was a lot to do in a short amount of time, O’Brien said.
“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.”
She was excited to finish spring semester on campus. In May, she celebrated her sister’s graduation from UW-La Crosse. This summer, she’s looking forward to traveling with friends, basketball club, moving off campus and her new job at a Menomonie supper club.
“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.