New summer program gives UW freshmen a head start

College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean Kate VandenBosch speaks to QuickStart students in Nancy Nicholas Hall. PHOTO BY MICHAEL P. KING/UW-MADISON CALS

Sarah Akakpo of Racine, Wisconsin, has big plans. She wants to earn a biology degree, go to medical school, and become a dermatologist or public health official. Like many first-year college students, she admits she was nervous about what her college experience would be like. Also on her mind were the cost of higher education and the time it could take to earn a degree.

While a majority of students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate with little or no debt, and finish in about four years, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) is working to help even more students achieve those goals. This past summer, CALS launched a brand new “early start” program for incoming first-year students called QuickStart.

Sarah Akakpo stands in front of her high school
QuickStart student Sarah Akakpo poses for a portrait at her alma mater, Washington Park High School in Racine. (Photo by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS)

Akakpo is one of 103 students in the inaugural QuickStart “class.” She was able to start her coursework early, earning two credits before the official start of the fall semester. She also received tailored academic and career planning, and took part in early networking opportunities to meet her future classmates, CALS faculty and researchers. It could all help her earn her degree on time and on budget, make the most of her college experience, and begin her career – quicker.

For Akakpo, QuickStart has already paid off.

“As a freshman I’m nervous for college. I’m nervous for all these things that are coming in my future,” she says. “QuickStart really showed me that I don’t have to be nervous, because I have tons of resources on campus. The Center for Pre-Health Advising – that’s a resource that I could use, because I’m going into the pre-med field.”

The program involves an online course, called “Foundations,” where students examine their strengths, values, and social identities, considering how those shape their academic and career interests. They also get a guided preview of advising, wellness, and academic resources on campus. QuickStarters can then move into their residence halls early, beating the rush. That’s when “Connect2Campus” begins. Students meet CALS researchers face-to-face in their laboratories, visit local businesses tied to the life sciences and agriculture, and learn to navigate the Madison campus.

“Our QuickStart students are highly motivated, but many were nervous about what college would be like,” says Tanya Cutsforth, CALS QuickStart program manager. “The eight-week online summer course allows them the flexibility to begin their college transition from home. When they arrive for the weeklong on-campus portion of our program, they immediately start making connections – not only with each other, but with all of the people, programs, and places they learned about throughout the summer.”

The Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association (WALSAA) saw such value in the initiative that it contributed $25,000 in seed funding for the program, allowing CALS to award need-based scholarships for QuickStart to 40 students, including several who are the first in their families to attend college.

“We are excited to partner with CALS to financially support the new QuickStart program,” says Marjorie Stieve, WALSAA’s past president. “Based on initial feedback from participants, this program will have long-lasting effects on them and others to come.”

Skyler Finucane folds pizza boxes
QuickStart student Skyler Finucane works her summer job at Marco’s Pizza in Algonquin, Ill. (Photo by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS)

One first-generation college student benefitting from a WALSAA scholarship is Skyler Finucane of Algonquin, Illinois. She plans to study entomology, a topic near and dear to her heart: back at home is her beloved pet tarantula, Dominick. Finucane says she has never been afraid of insects or spiders, and that the coolest thing she has ever seen is a dragonfly migration.

My mom’s told me stories about when I was a little kid,” Finucane recalls. “There was this time I was playing out on the back deck, and I told [my mom] to come look at my new friend. I had a wasp on my finger.”

CALS alumni in her extended family — with degrees in the fields of biochemistry and genetics — inspired her college decision.

“It’s just so cool to see what they were able to accomplish from going to Madison, and all the opportunities they had,” Finucane says. “I just love the town. I love the school, and I like the Big Ten feel. I know there’s so much research. You can’t always get that at every college.”

Academic rigor was what QuickStart student Aaron Esker of Appleton, Wisconsin, was looking for. Pursuing degrees in genetics and microbiology, he hopes to build on his experiences in high school, where he was able to try his hand at fragmenting DNA in an applied genetics course.

Aaron Esker
QuickStart student Aaron Esker poses for a portrait in his backyard in Appleton. (Photo by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS)

“I’ve always been interested in the amazement that is life,” says Esker. “Every time my teachers would bring a microscope out, I was really fascinated.”

Reflecting on her QuickStart decision, Akakpo, a WALSAA scholarship recipient, is enthusiastic about her choice to participate.

“It enabled me to jumpstart my future. I feel like I can succeed a lot more in my future, which will probably, in turn, help me financial-wise, career-wise. I can look back at it and be like, ‘You know what, I’m here because of QuickStart.’ I think that’s great.”

For more information about QuickStart, including application materials and deadlines, visit:

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