Master’s degree pursuit inspires self-growth for this septuagenarian
Carrol Hunder returned to college to make sense of life. She wanted that piece of paper that proved what she learned the hard way — through life experiences — was real.
Witnessing alcoholism and loss of loved ones, Hunder says so much of life is about intangible emotions, behaviors and feelings — messy stuff that to her always seemed so disconnected from learning.
That is until Hunder came across a brochure for a community health education program at UWL. It was 1986 and she was 48 years old. Her youngest child had just graduated from high school and she decided it was her turn to start living — by learning.
Hunder, who had left college as a teenager to start her family, wanted to dig beyond the self-help books. She believed her family’s experience with alcohol addiction and subsequent problems were not only individual challenges, but connected with larger community health issues. She wanted to understand how so many of her life experiences could have been alleviated with more knowledge. And she wanted to pass that knowledge onto others.
When Hunder restarted college that fall of 1986, what followed was a life-long pursuit of learning. And after earning her master’s degree at age 78 in August 2017, Hunder hasn’t stopped. In fact, her capstone project provides tools to continue her own self-growth and aid others in their life-long learning pursuits.
As a middle-aged woman walking into a college lecture hall filled with hundreds of 20-somethings, Hunder noticed she wasn’t much like those around her.
Her life had been about supporting her family, working odd jobs in rural communities: an insurance company, a grocery store and a funeral home. She was clerk treasurer for the village of De Soto for many years.
Sitting in her first community health education classes, Hunder immediately began to question why she was there. But she sat in the front row with her daughter, Ina-Jo (Arneson) Brosinski, someone who believed full well that her mother’s determination would prevail.
“Any tough situation, you just always knew that mom would do what needed to be done,” she says. “She never took the easy way out.”
One of Hunder’s first classes was on alcohol, drugs and society. It resonated and reaffirmed many of her experiences. Hunder had previously sought out support from self-help groups, self-help books and the mental health community. “Those challenges perhaps started with having to look alcoholism in the face as we were allowing it to destroy us individually, as a family, and I believe were evident in the larger community,” she says.
She drew connections between her studies and life. These connections fueled her learning. At the same time, Hunder began to feel a sense of belonging at UWL. With her schooling, she began full-time work as a limited-term employee helping with budgeting in the Athletic Department, the same department she had worked for 30 years prior as a UWL freshman. And the first person she came in contact with at the Athletic Department was former Athletic Director William Vickroy who was also part of the department when she was a freshman. “It literally felt like I was back where I belonged 30 years before.”
Hunder graduated from UWL in 1990 with an undergraduate degree in community health education. She immediately began working toward her master’s degree, spending countless hours in Murphy Library digging up information on the alcohol behaviors of college students for her thesis.
Hunder was nearly done when she left school again — this time to take a full-time job as an alcohol, tobacco and other drug facilitator with CESA #4. She worked with 26 school districts to set up comprehensive alcohol, tobacco and other drug programs. She became so entrenched in the work that she never returned to complete her thesis. The papers sat in a box in her basement for more than a decade, slowly wearing on her mind.
“I went down there one day. I thought, if I cart these out to the burn barrel, maybe I’ll get that monkey off my back,” recalls Hunder.
She lit the papers on fire.
Returning to college
That nagging feeling to finish her studies never left.
Another 30 years passed. Hunder’s children had children, and they grew up. Among her grandchildren was Ina-Jo’s daughter, Emma Brosinski, who also enrolled at UWL and declared a community health education major.
It was 2016 when Emma mentioned to grandma Hunder the names of one of two of her professors: Dan Duquette and Gary Gilmore — both professors Hunder had decades earlier.
Hunder began thinking again that maybe she could go back and finish her master’s degree. She reached out to Gilmore, director of Graduate Community Health and Public Health Programs, and the two met. Coming back onto campus, Hunder again had that feeling of being “back where I belonged.”
“We talked about the value of not only having such a degree, but also the value of closure,” says Gilmore.
Hunder and Gilmore went before the graduate council to make the case for her to return to complete her master’s work, even though the requisite seven years for completing the degree had passed. And after some discussion, the council approved.
“I kidded Dr. Gilmore and Dr. Duquette that they needed to get me through this time because I didn’t have another 30 years left to do this again!” she says.
When Hunder returned to school, her family began to miss seeing grandma at sports games and other events. She was always busy at her computer in the corner of her farm house.
Ina-Jo recalls the summer day she was watching her son’s baseball tournament in Holmen. She was surprised when her mother showed up and sat down on the bleachers behind her. “I quit. I’m done,” she said quietly. The capstone project work for her master’s degree had become too overwhelming.
Ina-Jo turned around, a soft smirk forming across her face. They sat quietly throughout the tournament. It was moments like this when Ina-Jo was grateful for the faculty in the Health Education and Health Promotion program. Gilmore, Hunder’s graduate project and academic advisor, in particular, would regularly meet with Hunder and had a way of helping her gain the confidence and energy she needed, says Ina-Jo.
A meeting with Gilmore succeeded in doing just that this time as well. Hunder explains in her capstone project how she struggled with various parts of her learning process — the technology, asking for help when she needed it or having the resolve to move forward. But those very challenges her project also addressed. In her capstone, Hunder would develop, implement and evaluate a self-assessment process for life-long learning. It would show Hunder how she could continue to grow and learn in her life while also creating a process for use by others.
The work gave her a meaningful, tangible avenue to self-reflect and grow. It pulled together those disconnected sides of her life — the emotional, feeling side and her learning side. “It made me feel like I was a whole person,” she says.
Hunder officially earned her master’s degree in community health education in summer 2017. She was grateful for UWL professors in the Health Education Department, particularly Gilmore and Duquette, as well as the graduate council, who gave her a chance to finish her degree. Gilmore felt a sense of joy and pride in seeing Hunder complete what she started so many years ago. He calls her a role model.
“She is helping others, and she helped herself along the way,” he says.
Hunder says before she returned to school in her 40s, she always thought of herself as a survivor. When she returned and began studying community health education, she was no longer surviving — she was living. But Gilmore helped her see that there was yet another layer to her life, and that was “thriving.”
“Even at my age, I move into the future feeling like, ‘Now I can thrive,’ she says. “How long will that last before there is another layer?”