May graduate transforms a tragedy

Leah Foltman sitting on campus with the clock tower blurred in the background.Leah Foltman graduates Sunday, May 13 with a degree in sociology. She received a full-ride fellowship to attend UW-Madison’s doctoral program.

Sociology major found campus support to get through unexpected challenge her junior year

If Leah Foltman’s mother were alive today, she would smile.

Foltman believes her mom would be proud as she graduates Sunday, May 13, from UW-La Crosse and continues her education on a full-ride fellowship to graduate school at UW-Madison.

She’d say something along the lines of, “I knew you could do it, kid.”

There were many times Foltman didn’t think she could do it.

In high school she was convinced she was the type of student who didn’t go to college. Foltman grew up in a low-income family with no one who had previously attended college. She was a “decent student” academically, but she was not the at the top of her class.

“People expected me to be that punk who drops out,” she says. “That’s just the type of life I had.”

So, when Foltman graduated high school and received her acceptance letter to UWL, she surprised herself. Her mother raved.

Still Foltman had her doubts. Her first semester at UWL, she felt homesick. She especially missed her 4-year-old sister back home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. She begged her parents to let her come home, but they urged her to continue.

Discovering her path

So, Foltman kept trying. The second semester of her first year, she took her first sociology course and her ideas about college started to change. “I’ve always been that inquisitive person… always asking questions,” says Foltman. “But I didn’t know there was a discipline for that.”

Sociology, the study of how social structures influence people, led Foltman to many more questions about how the world works. She wanted to dive into social problems and understand institutional injustices — some that she had experienced. She wanted to ask more questions about a topic she cared about deeply. And she did.

Professors took notice of her drive and intellectual curiosity.

“When she came across a problem, rather than say, ‘I can’t do it,’ she would dig her teeth in and tackle it,” says Dawn Norris, UWL associate professor of sociology. “That is a strength that not everyone has.”

In her fall 2016 statistics course, Norris had identified Foltman as a student who had the potential to go very far.

But that same semester, Foltman’s world stopped when she learned of her mother’s death. So overwhelmed with grief and the need to be with her family, she was ready to drop out. “I had my six-year-old sister at home who doesn’t know how to put her hair in a ponytail … Who is going to teach her those things that mothers and siblings do?” Foltman recalls thinking.

But UWL faculty in the Sociology Department encouraged her to think about what her mom would want, and about how she could be there for her sister by becoming everything she wanted to be.

“I knew my mom would whip my butt if I stopped doing something I’m passionate about … because I’m hurting,” says Foltman. “She would say, ‘Get it together.’”

Surprising herself

And so, Foltman again dug in and accepted the support that was coming her way. Antoiwana Williams, director of Multicultural Student Services, contacted all of her professors who worked with Foltman to finish her semester while at home with family. They sent her class notes, assignments, Skyped lectures and provided academic support from afar.

Foltman says her mother’s death forced her to interact more with faculty, which was a blessing in disguise. Some — like Norris and Laurie Cooper Stoll — became much more than teachers. They provided emotional support, mentorship and friendship when she needed it on the road ahead.

The second semester of her junior year, Foltman came back to school and threw herself into her work. She remembers plenty of nights with little sleep thinking about mom, but she pushed through and leaned on friends. Foltman’s aunt and maternal grandmother stepped into the role as female role models her life, she says.

“It was such a dark and scary time, yet, person by person, these people came into my life and gave me direction.”

Norris asked Foltman to be her research assistant that winter when she returned to school. She also learned about the McNair Scholars Program and decided to apply. She started the program in January 2017, which gave her the financial resources to begin following her own research interests in sociology. These were closely linked to her mother’s mental health struggles.

In addition to research, the McNair Scholars Program gave Foltman practice with skills in resume writing and graduate school exam test taking, as well as the social and cultural capital she would need to become a graduate student.

Foltman came away that second semester of her junior year with a 3.9 G.P.A., and she has been on the Dean’s List every semester since then. “Academically, I’ve been the most successful I’ve ever been,” says Foltman.

Foltman found out this spring that she was accepted to UW-Madison’s sociology doctoral program. Madison’s Sociology Department is consistently ranked the highest in the county, and Foltman will receive a fellowship that will pay her entire way. She still can’t believe it.

“I keep surprising myself, but I didn’t do it alone,” says Foltman. “I’ve been shaped by this university in more ways than one.”

Norris says Foltman transformed her experience. “What she went through was tragic, but she was able to grow and become stronger as she worked through it,” says Norris. “That is an incredible skill. I think the world of her.”

In the study of sociology, Foltman has learned a lot about how specific factors — outside of the individual — can influence success outcomes.

“Coming to a university of this caliber, I would not see myself being successful because I lack things my peers have; I’m not in the majority race, I don’t have the financial means, I don’t have the cultural capital, the experience …” says Foltman. “But at the university level — the resources they have provided me have helped me to be successful no matter what. I can never say thank you enough. It made me understand that I am capable of so much more than I thought I was.”