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UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences QuickStart student Skyler Finucane poses for a portrait with her pet tarantula at her home in Algonquin, Ill., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Finucane is interested in entomology. Photos by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS

Skyler Finucane of Algonquin, Illinois, plans to study entomology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It’s a topic near and dear to her heart: back at home is her beloved pet tarantula, Dominick. She says she has never been afraid of insects or spiders, and that the coolest thing she has ever seen is a dragonfly migration.

My mom’s told me stories about when I was a little kid,” Finucane recalls. “There was this time I was playing out on the back deck, and I told [my mom] to come look at my new friend. I had a wasp on my finger.”

A first-generation college student and the oldest of three children, she wants to shorten her time to degree and keep her costs down. While a majority of students at UW–Madisongraduate with little or no debt, and finish in about four years, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) is working to help even more students achieve those goals. Finucane enrolled in a brand new “early start” summer program for incoming first-year studentscalledQuickStart.

After graduating from Dundee-Crown High School, Finucane balanced a job at Marco’s Pizza with some QuickStart online coursework. She 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 her future classmates, CALS faculty and researchers. The program is designed to help her make the most of her college experience, and begin her career – quicker.

CALS alumni in Finucane’s extended family – with degrees in the fields of biochemistry and genetics – inspired her college decision.

“It’s just so cool to see what they were able to accomplish from going to Madison, and all the opportunities they had,” she says. “I just love the town. I love the school, and I like the Big Ten feel. I know there’s so much research. You can’t always get that at every college.”

QuickStart’s 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.

“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.”

Finucane was one of 40 students to receive a scholarship 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.

UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences QuickStart student Skyler Finucane works her summer job at Marco’s Pizza in Algonquin, Ill., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018.

“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.