The value of a college experience generally is assessed around what most students take away from it — a diploma and education to begin a career, personal growth and self-confidence, and lasting friendships and memories.
Some students, like Olivia Johnston, do all of the above while also leaving something behind.
During her four years at University of Wisconsin-Stout, Johnston made an impact on others through her involvement with the university’s Fostering Success program, which helps youth from foster homes transition to and succeed in college.
Johnston, from Gurnee, Ill., was one of those youth. As she benefited from the support provided by Fostering Success, she gave back over four years. She graduates Saturday, May 8.
“I am most proud of my work in Fostering Success, where I was able to educate people across the state about former foster youth and the challenges they face in higher education,” she said.
Johnston earned a business administration degree but did so much more. While employed at the Fostering Success and the Student Support Services offices, she:
- Met with Gov. Tony Evers on campus in 2020 to advocate for more state funding
- Participated in a statewide advocacy group for children who are in the state welfare system
- Served as a leader and role model for the Fostering Success Summer Overnight Camp for new students
- Coordinated bi-monthly dinners for Fostering Success students on campus
- Was a peer coach for Student Support Services
- Often shared her story as an example to underserved student populations, including during Welcome Week and Diversity Week sessions.
“I was fortunate enough to have a program as great as this one come into my life without even knowing I needed it. I can confidently say this has made my school experience the best it could have possibly been,” she said.
Gail Mentzel, an adviser for Fostering Success and for Student Support Services, witnessed Johnston grow as a person and as a student while helping others grow at the same time.
“Olivia’s lived experience in out-of-home care is critical in this leadership role. Olivia had a genuine connection with and ability to speak up and engage the group,” Mentzel said. “She will truly be missed, and her voice and advocacy will be challenging to replace.”
Recently, Johnston received a UW-Stout Leadership Award, one of three to win Student Employee of the Year. Along with Fostering Success and Student Support Services, she worked at First Year Advising.
“These programs have taken my college experience and made things possible when I thought I couldn't do it. They set me up for life past graduation, and I think that is the best part of it all,” Johnston said.
Angie Ruppe, director of Student Support Services and Fostering Success, agreed.
“Olivia has demonstrated to her peers the value of engaging in opportunities that contribute to her personal growth and the value of leaning into challenging leadership roles that ultimately provide the experience employers are seeking,” Ruppe said.
Ready for her career
Johnston, who has a minor in human resource management, expects to begin a sales position soon after graduation at a company in Rochester, Minn.
The variety of experiential learning opportunities on campus have prepared her for bigger things, she said.
“I have been able to participate in campus events, advocacy work, volunteer efforts and experienced fruitful learning environments that prepared me for life beyond the classroom. I have seized every opportunity I could in order to grow at Stout, and I wouldn't trade it for anything,” Johnston said.
Along with specific skills, she has learned soft skills as well, including the value of integrity, interpersonal effectiveness and civic involvement, she said.
“My Stout education and experience has cultivated me into the strong, confident and accomplished student I've become,” she said.