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UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences QuickStart student Aaron Esker poses for a portrait in his backyard in Appleton, Wis., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. Photo by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS

Whether he’s hiking a trail or fragmenting DNA in a laboratory, Aaron Esker of Appleton, Wisconsin, knows how to find excitement. The Appleton East High School graduate, now a freshman at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says the fields of genetics and microbiology appeal to his organized nature, and are a great “mix of adventure and discovery.” An Eagle Scout, avid hiker, and outdoorsman, Esker is just as comfortable immersed in nature.

“I’ve always been interested in the amazement that is life,” says Esker. “Running around, when I was very young, I used to pick up frogs and little snakes and things. Every time my teachers would bring a microscope out, I was really fascinated.”

In pursuing a degree in the life sciences, Esker wants to keep his college costs down, and time to a degree as short as possible.

“That’s definitely a goal of mine to ‘get done in four.’”

While a majority of students at UW–Madison do finish in about four years, and graduate with little or no debt, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) is working to help even more students achieve those goals. Esker enrolled in a brand new “early start” summer program for incoming first-year students called QuickStart.

After graduating from East, Esker balanced some summer work with online coursework for QuickStart. He earned two credits before the official start of the fall semester, received tailored academic and career planning, and participated in early networking opportunities to meet his future classmates, CALS faculty and researchers. The program is designed to help him make the most of his college experience, and begin his career – quicker.

The online course – “Foundations” – guides students in examining their strengths, values, social identities, and academic and career interests. They also get a preview of advising, health, and academic resources on campus. QuickStarters can move into their residence halls early to beat the rush. That’s when “Connect2Campus” begins, providing students the opportunity to meet CALS researchers face-to-face in their laboratories, visit local businesses tied to the life sciences and agriculture, and learn to navigate the Madison campus.

Through QuickStart, Esker became more familiar with extracurriculars that are tailored to his interests, like the Wisconsin Hoofers outdoors clubs. When he’s home in the Fox Cities, he spends a lot of time at Heckrodt Wetland Reserve, but knows Hoofers can help him fulfill his needs for recreation while he’s in Madison.

“It’s just a great way to relieve some stress – whether it’s school, my job, whatever – and get back to where I need to be,” he says.

“Our QuickStart students are highly motivated, but many were nervous about what college would be like,” says Tanya Cutsforth, CALS QuickStart program manager. “The eight-week online summer course allows them the flexibility to begin their college transition from home. When they arrive for the weeklong on-campus portion of our program, they immediately start making connections – not only with each other, but with all of the people, programs, and places they learned about throughout the summer.”

Forty students received scholarships for QuickStart from the Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association (WALSAA). WALSAA contributed $25,000 in seed funding for the program, allowing CALS to award need-based scholarships, many to students who are the first in their families to attend college.

“We are excited to partner with CALS to financially support the new QuickStart program,” says Marjorie Stieve, WALSAA’s past president. “Our alumni members are dedicated to supporting CALS students, and based on initial feedback from participants, this program will have long-lasting effects on them and others to come.”

Feedback from the inaugural QuickStart class has been overwhelmingly positive. In a survey conducted by CALS earlier this fall, 99 percent of students reported feeling connected to their peers and the CALS community, and 100 percent said they understand the advising resources available to them. Several have already landed research jobs thanks to the program.