Nicole Lesser

Nicole Lesser, School of Education student.

Nicole Lesser’s education career is a poster child illustrating the quote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.”

Lesser, now in her mid-30s and a senior in the School of Education’s educational policy and community relations program, started out at UWM in planning to become a teacher.

During her junior year, she left school when she became pregnant with her daughter, now 14. Her daughter arrived early, then Lesser was broadsided by an autoimmune disease that led to two years of chemotherapy.

“I was just 22, and it was rough. Life gets away from you sometimes.”

Her son, now seven, was born. She and her husband divorced, and she began a series of jobs with local nonprofits. All of that eventually inspired her to return to UWM two summers ago, but with a different area of education in mind.

“When I was in the nonprofits teaching and running programs, I started to see a lot of need for programming to have a little bit more integrity. I was seeing a lot of people running programs or running organizations who had no real connection with the people they were serving.”

When she was at UWM earlier, the community engagement and education degree (CEED) program didn’t exist, but when she returned she found it was the perfect fit for what she wanted to do.

“For those 10 years in the nonprofit sector, I had gone as far as I could go without a degree. That’s what first motivated me to come back, but when I had my first class with Aaron Schutz (professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies), I just really decided this is what I’m supposed to do.”

She had to go through two more surgeries last summer, and sometimes taking care of her children and going to school consumes a great deal of her time.

“I still pull all-nighters. It’s whenever I can get the work in. If it’s at 3 a.m. that’s when I do it.”

Earning and keeping a number of scholarships and grants, along with a part-time job, has helped her put her focus on academics. Her ex-husband has also been supportive. “He’s a great dad. We just weren’t meant to be married,” she says.

Her children have adapted to her scholarly life, cheering her on to go to the November awards ceremony and sitting down with her to do homework. Her son sometimes joining her on campus or enjoys the bowling alley or library while she studies.

She likes being at UWM because it’s so diverse and so intertwined with the city. “There’s so much work to be done with our schools and our communities that this is the perfect place to do field work and to study.”

Her own maturity enables her to view her readings with a different attitude.

“I like having experience to bring to the table in class discussions. Having been a mother, someone who’s worked in nonprofits and had struggles in life, I don’t approach my readings with a 19-year-old brain.” And, she adds, “The staff here makes you feel valued.”

Lesser says she’s always worrying about keeping her grades up and keeping on top of her homework, but is also amazed at how far she’s come.

“I kind of thought I’d never be back, having this conversation. If you would have told me 10 years ago this is where I’d be, I would have said, ‘no way.’”

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