The effortless stream of conversation between Erin Wilson and Jen Pestel is one you’d expect to find only between longtime friends.
When one pauses for a breath or laugh in the middle of a story of a late-night push to finish an assignment on deadline for their college classes, the other picks up to finish the tale.
“The conversation doesn’t stop,” said Wilson, 35, of Chippewa Falls.
At one of their post-semester celebratory dinners, the two spent three hours catching up on each other’s lives at Texas Roadhouse, leaving a big tip for the waitress because they felt guilty for taking up a table for so long.
“When we get together, it’s constant,” Pestel said of the conversation between friends.
It’s the kind of rapport that grows between kindred spirits in classrooms, but the pair rarely ever stepped into one during their two years in Chippewa Valley Technical College’s executive assistant program. They met in a two-day “boot camp” for nontraditional students and exchanged phone numbers, expecting they’d need support from someone facing the same challenges of working while taking online college courses.
“We’re both in the same boat, both have families, both have three kids,” said Pestel, 47, of Glen Flora.
They ended up relying on each other for reminders of assignment deadlines, help with CVTC’s online class system, late night cram sessions via phone calls and text messages, and encouragement to see their degrees through to the end.
“I think it would’ve been much more difficult without her,” Pestel said of her friend Wilson.
When one would struggle with a skill — Wilson said payroll gave her difficulty, while Pestel admits her business writing skills were rusty — the other was able to help her through.
And they both foresee the friendship that grew in the past two years continuing on after they claim their associate degrees today at CVTC’s commencement ceremony in Eau Claire.
CVTC executive assistant program director and instructor Jennifer Larrabee said this is the first time she’s seen students in her online classes pair off to become a resource for each other and grow into friends.
“That’s why I just love their story,” Larrabee said.
The instructor even invited Pestel to speak with first-semester students, sharing her experience and advice of finding a study buddy even if you only will take classes online.
There were times where Pestel and Wilson were tempted to stop short of a degree — to take the certificates earned after a year, put their new skills to use and work the jobs they’d already secured. But they took turns encouraging each other to see their education through to the end.
“I was so thankful that you did,” Wilson said.
“I can’t leave Erin hanging,” Pestel replied.
Their families also helped them finish their educations.
“My grandpa offered to send me to school, so I couldn’t resist,” Wilson said, noting he helped with her tuition. Although Wilson’s grandfather died before he could see her walk across the stage and accept her diploma, Pestel assures her friend that Wilson’s granddad will be watching from above as she graduates.
For Pestel, seeing her children more often and a change in careers helped motivate her. She had been managing a local McDonald’s — working many nights and weekends away from her children — when she enrolled at CVTC. Aside from getting her a job as a patient care coordinator at Orthopedic & Spine Therapy in Ladysmith, she also says going to college provided a good example to her children.
“Our kids have seen us get a degree,” she said. In Pestel’s case, she even studied alongside her eldest daughter in a CVTC phlebotomy class.
Wilson is currently at the job she’s had for about 15 years — working for her dad at Dells’ Architectural Antiques in Eau Claire. But the computer skills she gained at CVTC have already helped modernize the business.
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