Generations in the making

Mother, daughter push through challenges to graduate together

December 17, 2016

Mother and daughter Christine, left, and Shelena Brown are all smiles after receiving their diplomas.

Most graduates would say earning a bachelor’s degree takes years of determination. The obstacles, including challenging classes, late nights and self-doubt, are many.

Christine Brown and Shelena Brown faced even more potential roadblocks. They both had full-time jobs and family responsibilities, and they had returned to school as adults, taking classes online from their homes in Merrillan and Black River Falls, respectively.

Also, as Native Americans from the Ho-Chunk Nation, pursuing higher education — especially as women — wasn’t part of their family history. They were first-generation college students.

Along with their all-out desires to beat the odds and earn their degrees, they had something extra to celebrate Saturday, Dec. 17, when they crossed the commencement stage at University of Wisconsin-Stout to receive their diplomas: They did it together.

Christine, 49, and Shelena, 30, are mother and daughter.

“We’re definitely having a party,” Christine said. “We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished. This is something nobody can take away from us, ever.”

Christine earned a degree in career and technical education. Shelena graduated in management. They were supposed to graduate in separate ceremonies Saturday but, fittingly, arranged to be at the same ceremony so they could share the experience and make it easier for their contingent of family supporters.

Shelena knows its special, although it wasn’t planned, to graduate with her mother. “I’m very proud that my mom went back and did it later in life after she raised us. We talked a lot, helped each other and cried a lot together. We took statistics together and, oh my God, we needed the support,” Shelena said.

Shelena Brown is congratulated on her bachelor’s degree in management by Bob Salt, college dean.Christine said they’ve “been a support system for each other, but we’ve had our own struggles.”

‘I did it’

Although younger, Shelena may have had even more obstacles than her mom. Shelena’s children are 7, 4 and 2. While taking classes, she worked full-time in the Ho Chunk education department and also held a part-time job for a time. “I would put the kids to bed and do homework late into the night,” Shelena said, adding that her husband, Norman, supported her efforts.

A 2004 Black River Falls High School graduate, Shelena first earned an associate degree fromWestern Technical College in La Crosse about five years ago before enrolling in 2014 in UW-Stout’s management program, which accepted her credits.

“A bachelor’s was always a goal of mine, since high school,” Shelena said. “Once I got my associate degree, I learned to love learning and wanted to go on. I had a lot of trying times, mainly on the personal end, life issues that you can’t control.

“I’m very proud because I accomplished it. I did it.”

Shelena and Christine will continue in the full-time tribal jobs they’ve held. Shelena works in the Ho-Chunk Head Start program. In part because of her degree, she has been promoted to Head Start accountant. The grant-funded program serves 118 Ho-Chunk students at six centers in Wisconsin, she said.

Christine Brown receives her bachelor's in career and technical education.Leading by example

Christine has worked for the Ho-Chunk Nation for 26 years, the first 16 in management. The last 10 years she has been a training and development specialist in a variety of areas for casino employees, including facilitating classes on customer service.

She was partly determined to get her bachelor’s because “the world is changing so fast that I needed to secure my future not only for my family, but for myself in general. I wanted to enhance my skills and knowledge to make a difference and help those around me. I encourage people to go to school, especially our tribal members,” Christine said.

Christine also earned an associate degree at Western, one year after Shelena. At UW-Stout, Christine had to learn new technology — it didn’t exist when she was growing up — to take courses online.

“My grandfather always said, ‘You need to go to school. Ever since I was a young girl I wanted to get a bachelor’s,” Christine said.

She started at UW-Eau Claire in 1985 after graduating from high school but had to leave school because of a motorcycle accident. Then came marriage and three children with her husband, Dean Brown Sr., putting her dream on hold.

Along with family members, one of Christine’s childhood and lifelong friends attend. With a difficult home life, Christine struggled to learn as a child and the friend often did Christine’s homework for her.

“It’s unbelievable to her that I’m getting a college degree. She’s so proud of me,” Christine said.

“We offer a very heartfelt thank you to all our family, friends and relatives who have supported us through this journey," she added.

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Photos

Top: Mother and daughter Christine, left, and Shelena Brown are all smiles after receiving their diplomas Saturday at UW-Stout.

Middle: Shelena Brown is congratulated on her bachelor’s degree in management by Bob Salt, college dean.

Bottom: Christine Brown receives her bachelor's in career and technical education.