Driven to know

Neil Bollinger will graduate with a degree in archaeology during the December commencement ceremony Sunday, Dec. 18, at the La Crosse Center. He plans to continue on in graduate school.

From construction to classroom: December graduate rediscovers himself after work layoff

In 2008, Neil Bollinger’s construction career came crashing down around him.

The country was falling deep into recession and his struggles with drug and alcohol abuse were beginning to impact his job performance. He didn’t get that promised promotion or the new truck. He didn’t even survive the second round of company layoffs. That summer, Bollinger lost his $35 per hour wage, union benefits and the identity he had molded since he was a 17-year-old kid growing up in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“I was going to be a construction worker before I was old enough to work,” he says. “That’s what a man does.”

Today Bollinger, 35, is glad the economy tanked. It forced him to question his identity, and the idea that he wasn’t an academic type. It made him pursue education to get back to work. And, once he was at UWL, he realized a career that combines two of his passions — construction and academics – archaeology.

Bollinger will graduate with a degree in archaeology during the December commencement ceremony Sunday, Dec. 18, at the La Crosse Center. He plans to continue on in graduate school.

Bollinger says the construction layoff made him realize his life needed to take a 180 degree turn, not only in terms of his addictions, but in terms of his aspirations.

He wanted to find a future he could look forward to, and always had an interest in anthropology. He wondered things like “Why do people do what they do? Why do they go to jail and stand behind bars? Where do all of our societal institutions come from?”

“I think it’s kind of interesting that we were born into an ingrained kind of state not created by our parents … they were born into it too, but it keeps perpetuating with no one’s consent or understanding,” he explains.

But Bollinger didn’t pursue those deeper anthropological conversations growing up because “it was never cool to be smart,” he says.

Coming to the academic setting where these conversations happen every day in the classrooms and the hallways was “culture shock,” he admits. He started at UW-Rock County and then transferred to UWL where his counselor told him he’d find one of the best archaeology programs in the country.

At UWL, he at first avoided the 20 somethings in his classes because he figured they wouldn’t be able to relate to his vastly different life experiences.

Eventually, Bollinger opened up. He learned to appreciate other students’ personal experiences and shared his own. Professors offered him new situations and professional connections. Everyone challenged him to deeper conversations. Lectures gave him topics to contemplate for days at a time.

During a capstone course, Christine Hippert, associate professor of anthropology, could physically see the wheels turning for Bollinger as she brought up new ideas in class.

“He’d come back a few class times later with a question about it,” she says. “He takes what he learned, and he doesn’t just use it to analyze others, but also to analyze his own life experiences.”

That connection between class and the real world is key, says Hippert. Anthropology gets students to think about others, and that gives them a mirror to reflect on themselves. For instance, in one recent lecture, she talked about the price of a head of lettuce in relation to immigration policy and migrant labor.

“I give them real world stuff to chew on when they’re walking around the grocery store and have to pick and choose what to spend money on,” she says.

Hippert calls Bollinger an “extremely thoughtful student” who has excelled.

Bollinger says he must be doing something right because he’s earning A’s in the Archaeology and Anthropology program. He’s made plans to continue in graduate school in underwater archaeology.

“I appreciate being able to experience a different part of who I am,” he says.

Bollinger says back in his construction days, he couldn’t plan for tomorrow because he never knew how he’d feel emotionally due to the ups and downs of drug and alcohol use.

“Now I have the ability to plan years in the future and appreciate the moment at the same time,” he says. “The university for me is probably a lot like it is for younger students out of home for the first time. I’m rediscovering myself.”


UWL’s Winter Commencement set for Dec. 18 

UWL’s Winter Commencement will be Sunday, Dec. 18, at the La Crosse Center, 300 Harborview Plaza. No tickets are required to attend. Seating is on a first come, first serve basis.

The ceremony begins for all graduates at 11 a.m. This includes students from the College of Business AdministrationCollege of Liberal StudiesCollege of Science and Health and School of Education.

A total of 695 students are candidates for graduation. This includes 103 graduate students and 592 undergraduates.

More information on commencement is at