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From fifth-grade tour to grad-day stage: UW-Green Bay graduates first Phuture Phoenix students

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For UW-Green Bay seniors Seenia Thao and Jenny Mottl, Saturday’s commencement ceremony will culminate a journey that’s been nearly a dozen years in the making.

That’s because the pair’s UW-Green Bay story started not four or five years ago, as is the case for many of their peers, but back in April 2003, when they were fifth-grade participants in what was then a still-new program called Phuture Phoenix.

With Saturday’s commencement, Thao and Mottl will become UW-Green Bay’s first Phuture Phoenix program graduates, epitomizing the goals of the University’s signature college attainment program — to show youngsters from at-risk schools that college is possible, to help them see themselves pursuing higher education, and eventually, to support them in achieving college acceptance and completing their university education.

“These first few Phuture Phoenix graduates represent the success of the program now and in the future, to open doors and set a vision for college starting in the younger years,” said Phuture Phoenix Director Kimberly Desotell. “Phuture Phoenix programming, tutoring, mentoring and scholarship aid are critical components of support toward degree completion, to help students realize their dreams for a better future.”

Phuture Phoenix started as the brainchild of UW-Green Bay Trustee Ginny Riopelle and Cyndie Shepard, wife of former UW-Green Bay Chancellor Bruce Shepard. A visit to a local elementary school helped underscore the need for pushing the college-is-possible message early and often, and the pair sat down and created Phuture Phoenix in an afternoon. The program’s signature tour day has since served more than 13,000 fifth-graders from at-risk schools, and students receiving ongoing tutoring, mentoring and other support as they advance through the grades. If Phuture Phoenix students choose UW-Green Bay, a renewable scholarship helps them during each of their four years of school.

“We are tremendously proud to see these first Phuture Phoenix students graduating from UW-Green Bay and beginning the next phase of their lives,” Riopelle said. “This grassroots program has grown considerably since its inception, and yet its mission remains the same — to tell and to show kids that college is possible for them.”

That was a message received loud and clear for both Thao, who will graduate Saturday with a Social Work degree, and Mottl, whose major was Spanish.

Thao had been to UW-Green Bay before her tour day, with her parents who were part of the Hmong radio broadcast from the campus Wisconsin Public Radio station. But being part of Phuture Phoenix took that experience to the next level, she said.

“This is when I first got connected to the value of higher education,” said Thao, who attended Green Bay’s Howe Elementary School, “and imagined myself in the college experience.”

Since her freshman year, Thao has volunteered for the annual fall tour day, wearing her original Phuture Phoenix t-shirt underneath the t-shirt for the current year. She loves seeing all the students come through, and relishes the chance to share her experience with them.

“They have big dreams,” Thao said. “They all want to do something and it’s just great to see them feel the same connection I felt to campus — being wowed by everything, I mean, that’s the biggest thing because they see their future in a different light. They know possibilities (exist).”

For Mottl, Phuture Phoenix tour day was her first experience with a college campus — any college campus. She remembers the experience seemed intimidating at first, but the warm welcome from the UW-Green Bay community quickly dissipated any fears. And pretty quickly, her mind was made up about college.

“I think after the Phuture Phoenix visit, I kind of always planned to come to UWGB,” Mottl said. “I love the campus and its programs, and I think it’s more affordable yet offers the same education as other universities in the state. And the scholarship I got from PP definitely helped solidify that decision, and financially it has really helped me stay in college. So I’ll be forever grateful for that.”

And as it turns out, both of UW-Green Bay’s first Phuture Phoenix grads aren’t done learning yet. Thao will attend graduate school in the fall, pursuing a master’s degree at UW-Madison, while Mottl plans to do the same at UW-Milwaukee. You can be sure they’ll both remember where it all began.

“I am so proud to be a part of this from the beginning, to know that Phuture Phoenix supported me,” Thao said. “And I can’t wait to see all the other students (around) my age and continuing from fifth grade to have their dreams come true. I would not be where I am without Phuture Phoenix.”

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