“La Crosse Embraced Us”

By Melissa Baca

I didn’t choose to live in La Crosse. In a way, La Crosse chose me.

My daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes a year-and-a-half before we came to La Crosse. We were here to visit my cousin. With type 1 diabetes there is a stage, usually after diagnosis, known as “the honeymoon period.” It’s when their bodies are still able to produce some insulin. We changed our diets, we exercised, I turned our whole lifestyle around. For a moment, as foolish as it may have been, I thought I cured her, and the doctors had to be wrong. They warned me, that when the honeymoon period ends it will be very abrupt. 

We tested her sugars four times daily and kept a daily log of our food, carb, and exercise. Late one night as we got ready for bed, my daughter started feeling sick. When I went to check her temperature and blood sugar, her breath had this fruity smell. Oddly, it reminded me of a gum I got as a child called “Fruit Stripe” that came with temporary tattoos in every package. Then, I remembered something else. I had been warned that “fruity breath” could spell danger. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what that could mean. I know now that it’s a tell-tale sign of extremely high blood sugars. My daughter needed to go the hospital.

We were informed it may be a couple of weeks, so we ended up finding an apartment, moving in, and planned on staying only temporarily. That was about seven years ago. La Crosse just embraced us, the people I met here have really become family and in 2008, I made the decision to go back to college. I had zero idea of where to start until I happened upon an outreach program run out of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse called The Self-Sufficiency Program (SSP).

SSP is a 14 week long commitment. For nine weeks it is once a week every Tuesday night. The remaining weeks it is Monday and Tuesday nights. Dinner is provided, along with free childcare. I would very much advise parents who are looking to go back to college to check it out. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it changed my life.

Staff from financial aid was available. We were advised on the intricacies of the college admissions process. If you can manage the commitment, I think the program helps to show that college can be manageable, even for a young mother. The whole experience really helped me in applying to UWL (SSP also works with the surrounding colleges).

I did already have an Associate of Science in environmental science from Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, formerly Fort Berthold Community College, an accredited community college on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, of which I am a tribal member. I lived there for most of my adult life.

I really wished I would have paid more attention to what my mentor, Mr. Abe, had attempted to relay to me about four-year universities. Back then, I didn’t really believe in myself enough to think a four year degree was doable for me. But Mr. Abe believed in me. One thing he properly prepared me for was research. As I found out at UWL, students face a constant barrage of material they must sift through and interpret.

I am majoring in women’s studies and set to graduate next month. The end is near and yet it’s hard to believe it’s almost over. It has been quite an adventure, one that has come with a fair amount of stress on my time and my finances.

One thing I have done that has been an absolute blast was becoming a reporter for UWL’s student newspaper, The Racquet Press. In high school I always wanted to join the journalism club and write for the high school newspaper. I never did. Back then, I allowed self-doubt to take up a majority of my decision making. In my older years I made some changes, which was why college was a goal.

Stepping out of my comfort zone has been a constant during my time at UWL and, rather than fight the feeling, I try to embrace it and proceed. When a challenge presents itself now, I think ‘eff it! The worse thing they can do is say “no.” That’s better than me saying no and stopping myself.

It has been difficult feeling like I am taking up space from the traditionally aged students in a predominantly white institution. Being older also poses some challenges. Most of my peers are a couple years older than my girls.

When I first started classes, I felt awkward. My first two classes happened to be in the same room, with an hour break in between. Perfect for my lunch break and a quiet, safe space, free from distractions and that feeling of not fitting in that can be quite isolating. Luckily for me, my professor also loved that break in between and used it as her space. She was very influential in helping me succeed my first semester. She was so insightful and had traveled the world. She is an amazing social justice warrior. She is also Native American and Chicana. One of the few on campus, as with most campuses. I really miss her as she’s no longer a part of UWL, which is a shame.

Her classes were the reason I chose women and gender sexuality studies as my major. Women’s studies does not get the respect it deserves, which is hard for me to understand. It is such an interdisciplinary field, but delivers the information from a women’s and gendered lens, a perspective oftentimes ignored.

I’ve been asked, “how can you find a job with that degree?” I answer, “how can you not.” Women’s studies has broadened the way I think and changed the way I view myself and has given a name to my identities and experiences. I don’t consider myself a feminist at all. I am more a womxnist. I think that brings more marginalized womxn into the conversation.

Women’s studies is for anyone who has a womxn in their lives and cares about them. In my life that includes my daughters, all the womxn who’ve helped me along the way, and all the others who are struggling for their futures. I see you, and I’m with you.

Top image: Melissa Baca with her daughters Sydnee, Carlee and Keelee. Email questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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