Luisana Waukau highlights passages as she works her way through a 40-page reading for a women’s studies class. The babysitter arrived an hour ago for her 5- and 12-year-old daughters, who are off of school. Later in the week, there will be pediatrician appointments, a museum trip and her job in a downtown Milwaukee emergency room. Waukau also interns at Independence First, where she facilitates a group for teenage girls.
Doing it all, she says, is her only choice.
“My education is the most important thing I own,” says Waukau, the only one of her mother’s three children to graduate from high school.
She will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in May. Waukau credits her success – including awards for writing and community service – to her daughters, her husband and the UWM Life Impact Program. Since 2005, Life Impact has worked to break the cycle of poverty by supporting nearly 200 students who could most benefit from a college degree, but are least likely to graduate: disadvantaged students raising young children.
It has beaten the odds with a retention and graduation rate of 86 percent and an employment rate of 96 percent for new graduates. Applications are being accepted through May 13 for fall 2016. UWM students who are already enrolled and incoming first-year students are encouraged to apply.
The program’s small advising staff provides academic and emotional support, family workshops and career-planning services. The personal attention changes lives, but the program’s financial support is key: Scholars receive a $5,000 renewable scholarship and access to emergency funds that can help pay the rent, buy textbooks or pay for brake repairs.
Waukau enrolled at UWM in 2010 after her husband, Jesse Waukau, graduated from the Lubar School of Business as one of the first Life Impact scholars. Freshman year was an exciting time for Luisana Waukau, with her husband’s finance career flourishing and their second child on the way.
But things did not go as expected. Their daughter Natalya suffered a traumatic brain injury just moments before birth.
Depression and determination followed. When Waukau was too tired to head to the NICU to nurse Natalya, her husband carried her to the car. When she returned to school that fall, she did it with a backpack, breast pump, laptop and baby strapped across her body. The semester was a blur of medical appointments and anxiety, followed by a move to Minneapolis for Jesse’s new job. Waukau attended online classes, while missing family in Milwaukee and the personal connections she and Jesse made when he was a Life Impact student.
The family returned to Milwaukee by 2012, and Waukau was back at UWM, this time as a Life Impact scholar herself. With Natalya’s health issues and her own academic challenges, Waukau said she joined the program at a critical moment.
She didn’t know how to study, take an exam or write a composition. Dyslexia eroded her confidence. Life Impact built it up.
“I walked in there, told them I didn’t know what I was doing. My adviser pulled out a syllabus from my course and we made a study guide.”
But it was the emotional support she received from Life Impact that truly anchored her.
“Natalya was severely delayed,” Waukau recalled. “I was so scared. I thought she was going to die, and I was still going to class, managing my homework. That’s where Life Impact helped out.”
Life Impact coach and program coordinator Natalie Reinbold had attended Jesse and Luisana’s wedding. She watched their older daughter grow up, and celebrated Jesse’s career milestones.
“Natalie is the only reason I didn’t drop out my junior year,” Waukau now says, laughing. “I didn’t want to have that talk with her. It would be too intense. I told myself it would be easier to try one more semester.”
Life and health have improved for the family since then. Natalya was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 2, paving the way for more focused treatment, access to mobility equipment and speech, occupational and physical therapy.
Waukau is majoring in Women’s & Gender Studies, a field that has changed her life and merged, powerfully, with her experiences as the daughter, mother and sister of people living with disabilities.
While her husband works as a global finance project manager at GE Healthcare, Waukau manages every aspect of Natalya’s care. Convinced by Reinbold that volunteer work was essential to career preparation, she volunteered at the Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center, then landed an internship teaching young women at Independence First about relationship-building, disability rights and self-esteem. Through Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, she provides on-call support to parents who need help finding resources for their children.
After graduation, Waukau plans to be a program coordinator for an organization that supports families affected by disability.
“Women’s & Gender Studies teaches you the skills you need to see a problem and find solutions,” she said. “I want to use my experience to help people find the tools to help themselves. Somebody has to have the knowledge to help Natalya navigate the system.”
Around the time that Waukau receives her degree, her kindergartner will get a new car.
“That’s because I’m her advocate,” Waukau said. “Natalya wanted a motorized car instead of a wheelchair. In her mind, she’s not a kid who needs a wheelchair. She’s a kid who can drive a car.”