Editor’s note: Colleen Wierzbinski is among CUW's 318 December graduates. She'll join in Saturday's Virtual Commencement ceremony, which begins at 1:30 p.m. CT, to celebrate the completion of her bachelor's degree in elementary/middle education.

Colleen Wierzbinski (’20) poses at her childhood home, a farmhouse on 35 acres in Waubeka, WI, which she will soon own.

It’s tough to reach the finish line when you don’t know what race you’re running or what prize awaits you at the other end.

This considered, Colleen Wierzbinski’s collegiate photo finish is all-the-more impressive.

Right out of high school, the Waubeka native began her post-secondary schooling at a technical college without a definitive end goal in mind. She abandoned that pursuit after a year when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. For the next 3 ½ years, Colleen ambled through life, holding down a steady shift-work position, but devoting the bulk of her attention and energy to her mom’s health.

RELATED: Tim Tebow is the featured speaker of Concordia’s Virtual Commencement ceremony, which honors both the May and December graduates of 2020. The celebration begins with a pre-show at 1:15 p.m. CT. Click here to watch live once the ceremony begins.

Life, interrupted

In some ways, the day that her mom died gave Colleen the jolt she needed to course correct. It was a devastating day by anyone’s standards. At around 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2015, Colleen awoke in her Milwaukee rental home to a faint beeping sound. She groggily stepped into the hallway to find the source and discovered flames engulfing the pull-down attic door.

As she waited outside for the emergency response team to arrive, a semi-truck came barreling down the street and smashed into her parked car—an unwelcomed distraction from an already disastrous situation.

Between the emergency response efforts, the insurance and police reports, and the exploration of the wreckage to see if anything was salvageable, the ordeal lasted all day. Colleen finally was able to start the drive to her parents’ home in Waubeka at 5 o’clock that night. About a half hour after she arrived at her childhood home, she received the call from hospice that her mother had passed away.

“I did lose sight of my faith,” Colleen said. “Not only with my mom’s passing, but there was a point where life just happens and things get harder, and you think to yourself, ‘Can I manage full-time school? Can I manage that on top of everything else?’ As you get older, it just gets harder and harder to go back.”

A life turning point

Colleen was still unsure of what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew—thanks to a heart-to-heart with her mother while she was in hospice—that her mom wanted her to get her college degree.

Colleen said a “life turning point” came on a drive to Milwaukee.

“I was driving past Concordia one day and I just had this feeling like, ‘I should enroll.’ I really had no other experience with Concordia other than that, but I had looked at other schools and they weren’t the right fit, and I just felt resolved. So I enrolled and it was so welcoming. I felt like I was home.”

Still, it took Colleen a full year to find her footing.

“When I first started at Concordia, I was 23 years old,” she said. “Everyone else was 18 or 19. I felt out of place. I felt intimidated. And then, just the fact that I had to almost retrain my brain to learn and to study. It was hard for me. I felt so behind.”

“Every experience I had in each of my classes at Concordia validated my choice to become a teacher. My heart felt full. It was clear that this was my calling.” —Colleen Wierzbinski ('20)

A program change and a new resolve to make friends despite the age gap paved the way for yet another academic restart the next year. This time, Colleen found her place among Concordia’s School of Education.

“Every experience I had in each of my classes validated my choice to become a teacher,” Colleen said. “My heart felt full. It was clear that teaching was my calling.”

On Saturday, Colleen will join in CUW’s Virtual Commencement (along with the 1,186 other Class of 2020 graduates) to celebrate the momentous achievement. 

She’ll graduate with her Bachelor of Arts in elementary/middle school education and a minor in social studies. With substitute teachers in especially high demand amidst the pandemic, Colleen is biding her time and weighing her options before she accepts a full-time teaching position. She’s also hoping for a position near Waubeka, since she recently made the decision to purchase her childhood home—a farmhouse on 35 acres—in order to keep her mother’s memory alive and to nurture her own love of animals. She’s especially thrilled to purchase her own horses. Colleen expects to close on the sale next summer. 

Colleen restarted her post-secondary education with her mom in mind, and she’ll end it in kind.

“I remember my first day back at school at Concordia and I told my dad, ‘Mom would be proud.’ I still say that to this day. This is 100 percent a tribute to my mom.”

— This story is written by Kali Thiel, director of university communications for Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. She may be reached at kali.thiel@cuw.edu or 262-243-2149.

If this story has inspired you, why not explore how you can help further Concordia's mission through giving.