Student’s classroom, co-curricular experiences pave unexpected path

Student Marleigh FiedlerHow does a shy aspiring fashion designer choose to major in Political Science and Public Administration, develop a passion for providing affordable housing for low-income families, become a peer mentor for a freshman seminar, and lead a high-profile annual event for her sorority? For student Marleigh Fiedler, a breadth of experience and relationships have led to a direction she couldn’t have imagined three years ago when she enrolled at UW-Green Bay.

Fiedler experienced her 15 minutes of fame in summer 2013, when she received a $500 tip while waitressing at a pizza joint in Wauwatosa. A nonprofit called Aaron’s Last Wish has been doling out the huge gratuities in honor of a Kentucky man who died in 2012, just weeks shy of his 30th birthday. The feel-good story of Fiedler’s tip made news statewide and beyond, with media outlets from Milwaukee to Minneapolis sharing the touching footage. And although the outside attention was unexpected, those who know Fiedler at UW-Green Bay say she shines in many ways, on campus and beyond.

Fiedler receives $500 tip in Milwaukee restaurant– Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Fiedler’s story is one of discovering one’s direction at UW-Green Bay, of having experiences and influences that embody the University’s 360° of Learning approach and all it stands for. Her story is unique but its transformative nature is not, thanks to a connected learning experience that integrates classroom and co-curricular options to help students discover fresh insights, new perspectives and rich opportunities to learn, grow — and ultimately, to give back.

A 2011 graduate of Brookfield East High School, Fiedler chose UW-Green Bay because of her interest in design arts and fashion design. On a whim (and with some gentle nudging from her mother), she signed up for a campus Habitat for Humanity trip to Slidell, La. during winter break of her freshman year. Fiedler was decidedly out of her comfort zone, traveling to an unfamiliar place with people she didn’t know to do home construction — something with which she had absolutely no experience.

That one-week service-learning trip changed everything.

Marleigh Fiedler, Habitat for Humanity tripIn Slidell, Fiedler worked on a new home for the Desmonds, an elderly couple that had lost their house to Hurricane Katrina. The Desmonds had been living in a ramshackle trailer since 2005, housing that was completely inadequate for Mr. Desmond, who was disabled. Fiedler and her crew formed a deep bond with the Desmonds, and she was able to see firsthand what a difference she could make in someone else’s life. She also met new friends, some of whom invited her to pledge the philanthropy-focused Zeta Omega Tau sorority. It would become another important part of her UW-Green Bay experience.

Upon returning to Green Bay for her second semester, Fiedler had found new friends — and a new calling.

“I could see the impact I was making on people,” she said, “and I decided that I wanted to do that for a living.”

With encouragement and help from her adviser, Associate Prof. Katia Levintova, Fiedler settled on a double major in Public Administration and Political Science. She worked for the Obama campaign in 2012, contacting volunteers, canvassing and assisting with logistics when the president visited Green Bay. Fiedler increased her involvement in Zeta Omega Tau, organizing one of its chief fundraising efforts, and used connections with Assistant Prof. Lora Warner to become a peer mentor for a freshman seminar class. Habitat adviser and Dean of Enrollment Services Michael Stearney helped Fiedler make further connections, and she secured campus jobs in the Office of Grants and Research and later in the Office of the Dean of Professional Studies.

Through it all, Habitat has remained Fiedler’s passion. She returned to Slidell on the January build trip in 2013, helped with fundraisers and became an officer in the organization during that academic year. She co-led the most recent Habitat winter build, a trip to North Carolina in January of this year. Building on her passion for Habitat and her classroom studies, Fiedler applied and was selected for the three-day “Habitat on the Hill” conference, held in February in Washington, D.C. She was one of just 14 young people nationwide — and the sole individual from Wisconsin — chosen for the conference, which centers on advocacy, education and lobbying for affordable housing and community development. Fiedler says she’s learning firsthand about the interdisciplinary nature of the affordable housing problem in the U.S. and worldwide.

Marleigh Fiedler, Zeta Omega Tau sorority“I know that I have grown up very lucky,” Fiedler said. “I am very appreciative of everything I have had — a nice home to grow up in, the chance to attend one of the best high schools in the state. Growing up in Milwaukee, I was also aware of how different others’ circumstances were, but I didn’t have a way to act on it. Now, I just want to be able to give back. I want to be the person pushing for the change.”

UW-Green Bay will continue to be a critical component of that journey as Fiedler continues her studies and campus involvement until her planned graduation in May 2015. After that, working for a nonprofit organization or in a legislative capacity are career possibilities — as is graduate school, where she is considering a focus on public policy and education.

And as for that $500 tip? Perhaps there is something about giving that begets giving. Fiedler took the generous gratuity and paid it forward, using half of it for the 2014 Habitat trip and saving the other half for her final UW-Green Bay build next year. For Fiedler, it’s yet another way to give back.