Education student balances activism and learning

A woman sits at a desk.

Even before she graduates, Alyssa Molinski already has experience juggling two demanding jobs.

She is a student in the School of Education’s Early Childhood Education program and has also served as the Student Association president for 2018-2019.

Molinski, who grew up in Menomonee Falls, says her family inspired her to go into education.

“I come from a family of educators, so that’s what made me choose teaching. Also, I’m the oldest of four children. Growing up, we always played school and naturally I had to be the teacher. I would never allow anybody else to do it.”

She chose UWM’s program because of its affordability, and also because it allowed her to live at home.  “I was able to commute my first two years and saved a lot of money that way.”

Having an impact

Molinski always enjoyed babysitting, and a job at the Children’s Learning Center on campus cemented her interest in working with the youngest learners. Those experiences helped prepare her for teaching first grade at 95th Street School during her first field placement.  “I’ve always had a passion for caring for and teaching the younger ones. They just make me so happy, and I love being able to have the opportunity to have a great impact on an important stage in their lives.”

Faculty members Professor Nancy File and Lynn Sedivy, a senior lecturer, inspired her to add a certificate in English as a second language. Even though she’s busy in student government, she puts a great deal of time and energy into her class work.  “I just love the School of Education here. I truly feel connected to all of the faculty and staff that I’ve worked with.”

She’d served on the student council in high school and knew students could make a difference, so she wanted to become involved in student government. “I wanted to be a leader, and I wanted to help others find their path,” she said.

“I didn’t really get involved until the end of my freshman year,” she said. “I’d had a lot of trouble connecting to campus, and I feel like that because I was a commuter and I worked at a shoe store back home, I would just come to campus for class and then I’d have to leave to go to work.”

Getting involved

But when a seat opened for a senator from the School of Education at the end of her freshman year, Molinski applied for it. She represented the school during sophomore year and then Academic Affairs her junior year, serving as Student Association vice president. In the spring of 2018, she ran for president and was elected.

Two key planks in her platform were encouraging students to register and vote and helping eliminate food insecurity among students.

“The elections really impact students. For example, at the state level,  the budget cuts we’ve received in recent years and the politics of the UW System really affect students here at UW-Milwaukee.” Having UWM chosen as an early voting site during the fall midterm elections helped in efforts to raise student awareness of the importance of voting, Molinski said.

Planning for a food center and pantry began in 2016 as a result of surveys that showed up to half of UWM students had experienced food insecurity within the previous few months. The Student Association, with support from the Dean of Students office and other campus organizations, took the lead in getting the pantry set up on the third floor of the UWM Student Union. “I don’t want it to be something that just the Student Association did, but I want it to besomething the whole campus is proud of,” says Molinski.

The UWM Food Center and Pantry opened in the spring semester of 2017, and by the end of the 2018 year had had more than 500 visits.  “I just want to make the food pantry so much part of who we are that students feel comfortable accessing it,” Molinski said. “One of my goals was to eliminate the stigma associated with food pantries so students can safely and comfortably get the resources they need.” The food center and pantry received the UW Regents’ Diversity Award in February 2019 for its work to support all students.

Meeting challenges

Shortly before she became involved in the Student Association as a sophomore, student government had been through some challenging times with two rival student governments wrangling over control of funds and making accusations of a lack of transparency. Molinski says she was proud to have been part of a transformation in student governance since then.  In speaking about UWM’s Guiding Value of ethical behavior recently, she said: “We have professional and legal standards we have to meet when it comes to posting the agenda and the public meeting notices. Our budget is transparent and easily accessible. I think it is important in rebuilding the trust the Student Association lost a few years ago.”

Molinski is planning to graduate after at the end of the fall semester 2019.

After graduation, she would like to be an English as a second language teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools, she said. Eventually, she added, she’d like to go on to graduate school and work toward a career in school administration.

“Being the president of the Student Association has truly taught me a lot,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up running for office someday, but for now my focus is on educating.”

‘A shining star’

Faculty members and advisors in the School of Education are proud of Molinski’s success.

“Alyssa is a shining star.  We always encourage our students to get involved on the campus, and she obviously took that to heart,” said Robert Longwell-Grice. “I was so impressed with her efforts getting the Food Pantry started, that I nominated her for one of UWM’s Entrepreneurship Scholarships.  Most of the time these awards go to a student who created some sort of a computer app, or something in the business field that makes money.  In this case the committee saw that she was truly an entrepreneur in her own right when she took the creation of the Food Bank on.”

“One thing that’s been interesting to me is watching Alyssa grow in her skills in advocacy and making a difference, said Nancy File, professor of education. She noted that she has talked over the years with Molinski about educational issues, and added the student association president will likely be applying those leadership and advocacy skills she learned at UWM within her profession. “It will be interesting to see how she can apply what she likes to do  within a field that she’s becoming a member of.”

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