Applied mathematics and computer science major finds new support system away from home

Stout Scholar O’Brien, recruited for women's basketball, looking for a place to thrive in first year
Stout Scholar Erin O'Brien, third from the right, with teammates at a home Blue Devil's basketball game.
Abbey Goers | September 10, 2020

Erin O’Brien first looked into University of Wisconsin-Stout when she was recruited as a center for women’s basketball. But she discovered the university was more than a place where she could play. O’Brien saw it as the best place to prepare her for the world after college.

“I chose Stout because I thought this was a place where I could thrive as an individual,” she said.

Stout Scholars Scholarship

Portrait of Stout Scholar Erin O'Brien, submitted.
Stout Scholar Erin O'Brien / Erin O'Brien

During her campus tour, O’Brien met with an adviser to talk about academics and scholarships. The adviser introduced her to the Stout Scholars Scholarship and encouraged her to apply.

The scholarship is $5,000, renewable for up to four years, for a total value of $20,000. Applicants are invited to Stout Scholars Day in late January the winter before their first semester. The day was full of activities, including an interview as part of the application process.

O’Brien met other students as anxious as she was. “The application process was nerve-wracking because of the interview,” she said. “But I knew I did well talking with others, so I tried not to let the nerves get to me. I guess it worked!”

Three incoming first-year students are awarded each year based on ACT score, class rank and grade-point average. Recipients are announced each June. O’Brien, of South Haven, Minn., found herself within the prestigious group for 2019.

No gray area in Blue Devil studies

O’Brien is majoring in applied mathematics and computer science. Math has always been one of her favorite subjects. She thinks anyone interested in math and programming should check out AMCS.

 

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O'Brien, number 51, center for Blue Devils women's basketball. / University Athletics

“I think I like it so much because it isn’t super flexible. There can only be a certain answer. There is no gray area,” O’Brien said. “AMCS challenges the depth of your math knowledge, your logic and how well you can solve difficult problems.”

O’Brien is in the mathematics education concentration. While still in her first year, she was able to jump into her prestudent-teaching experience at Menomonie Middle School.

“I got to learn so much from my cooperating teacher,” she said. “I observed several seventh-grade classes and experienced a classroom as both a teacher and a student. It was a great experience for me.”

O’Brien has always dreamed about studying abroad. In summer 2021, she plans to go to Budapest, Hungary, where there is a program specific to math education majors.

“I am excited to go to a different country and experience not only a new culture but a new way to teach math. I feel like this will be a great opportunity for me,” she said.

“Academically, Stout has been a great place for me to grow and challenge myself. I feel like I am learning more than just concepts. I am learning how to apply what I learn to my career. I know I have picked a school that will push my limits and help me succeed,” O’Brien said. 

Finding a new support system

 

2019-2020 UW-Stout women's basketball team.
Blue Devils women's basketball team, 2019-2020 season. / University Athletics

Going to college is a big change for every student, and O’Brien knew it would take a while to adjust. The Stout Scholars Scholarship gave her an extra cushion, so she didn’t have to worry about working on top of academics and playing basketball.

O’Brien felt overwhelmed with classes in fall 2019, and when practice started in October and throughout the season, in which she saw action in 20 games. But her biggest challenge came from within. She felt her anxiety double without the support system of her family nearby.

“Not gonna’ lie, adjusting was hard,” O’Brien said. “Everything was new or challenging or just plain scary. I felt very homesick and isolated. I missed being able to go home and see my parents every day. I definitely took that for granted in high school.”

O’Brien lost confidence in herself and couldn’t push away her doubts. Basketball became both a blessing and a curse, she felt. She could rely on her team like family, but a family whom she desperately didn’t want to let down. She felt her anxiety grow. At first, she wasn’t open to asking for help. She relied on herself, but that became too much.

 

Erin O'Brien and her roommate Klaire.
Erin O'Brien, left, with friend and roommate Klaire. / Erin O'Brien

So, O’Brien reached out to different campus resources to find ways to manage her anxiety. She sought help at the Counseling Center, from her coaches, teammates and friends, including her roommate Klaire.

O’Brien felt more and more comfortable farther into her first year, connecting better with her team and participating in campus activities.

“I was used to being on my own a little better,” she said. “I still struggled with my anxiety, but I felt I could function as myself, not just a shell. I had a new support system I learned to trust just as much as the one I have at home.”

She made going to her AMCS Women’s Group meetings a priority. She also joined a team to compete in Kryptos, an international codebreaking competition for college and high school students. Forty-nine teams from around the world entered the annual competition.

“Breaking the codes required thinking out of the box and a lot of trial and error. The biggest tool was persistence; you just had to keep problem-solving,” she said. “I had a great team and I enjoyed the challenge of trying to break each code. I definitely would try it again.”

“I just want to experience everything with an open mind and get a feel for where I fit into Stout as a student,” she said. “It took me a long time to just feel comfortable . But I found a place where I can start to make a foothold for myself.”

Building relationships during COVID-19

When UW-Stout moved to alternative learning methods in March 2020 because of COVID-19, O’Brien believed her professors did a great job transitioning to online learning. They were always available for virtual meetings or if she had questions.

 

Screenshot of Erin O'Brien and friends in a Zoom meeting.
Screenshot of women's basketball Zoom team meeting. / Erin O'Brien

Used to learning on her own, it was a smooth transition to online learning for O’Brien. For help with her harder classes, she relied on her AMCS Women’s Group.

While away from campus, her team stayed in “team mode” through Zoom meetings. O’Brien grew closer to her teammates through distance learning, helping with math homework when she could.

“I enjoyed helping because I know distance learning can be harder for many people. I was glad I could help,” she said.

O’Brien kept in touch with friends through video chats and daily Snapchats. “It is always nice to see and hear from my friends during this time. I just really wanted to stay connected so I could build stronger relationships.”


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