‘My education was a significant milestone’

Mary Kolar speaking at podium.

Mary Kolar, '80, earned her bachelor’s degree from UWL in marketing. Kolar returned to campus to speak at the Chancellor's Community Council Thursday, May 9. Kolar is secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.

Alumna grateful for investment in her education as she now leads the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs

Despite overall state and national declines in enrollment in public higher education over the last roughly six years, UW-La Crosse’s enrollment remains strong.


UWL officials and one alumna shared their opinions during the Chancellor’s Community Council presentation on Thursday, May 9, at UWL.

Joe Heim, UWL’s legislative liaison and retired political science professor, explained that visionary leaders, attractive and employable majors, faculty and staff with true interest and care for students and strong support from alumni, legislators and the region are among the likely reasons UWL has defied this trend.

Yet, overall declines in UW System enrollment do not bode well for the UW and public support for higher education is absolutely essential, added Heim.

One strong voice of support came from UWL Alumna Mary Kolar, ’80, who presented on her background and position as the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs during the Chancellor’s Community Council. Kolar is responsible for the leadership and management of the department, as well as the chief advocate for the more than 350,000 veterans in Wisconsin and their families. The event also highlighted the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at UWL with cadets from UWL and surrounding campuses that participate.

Kolar, who was raised by a single mother after her father’s death, explained that because of federal education benefits, grants and social security benefits, she was able to attend college. “I’m very grateful for the investment our country made in me — allowing me to graduate nearly debt-free,” she says.

Also, an investment in her education from people at UWL helped prepare her for her career. Kolar pointed to UWL faculty who didn’t just teach classes, but also placed an emphasis on serving students. Support from family, friends and her academic advisor helped her persist through challenges in college and find opportunities. She traveled abroad for a class and practiced service, leadership and networking as a member of Phi Gamma Nu, a professional business sorority. Overall, the professional skills she learned prepared her well for her career progression and added up to an “incredible education,” Kolar explains.

“My education was a significant milestone that allowed me be appointed as the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” she says.

Considering an overall decline in enrollment and support for higher education both in Wisconsin and nationally presented at the beginning of the Chancellor’s Community Council, Kolar said, “we have to turn this around.” She called higher education an investment with a “great payoff.”

Enrollment trends
Enrollment in public higher education across the nation has shown an overall decline between 2013-2018, according to statistics from the State Higher Education Executive Officer Association presented during the Chancellor’s Community Council.