Photo of UW-River Falls student Blake Zak performing at the Scholarship Recognition Event and Donor Social Oct 8, 2023. The event, organized by University Advancement, occurs annually and is designed to bring together scholarship donors and scholarship recipients

UW-River Falls student Blake Zak performs at the Scholarship Recognition Event and Donor Social Oct 8. The event, organized by University Advancement, occurs annually and is designed to bring together scholarship donors and scholarship recipients

Blake Zak never intended to go to college, never intended to make his way to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

After graduating from high school in Hastings, Minn., Zak, a musician, was content to play music on weekends at bars and restaurants while working and leading worship services at his hometown Lutheran church.

“I didn’t want to go to college. Not even a little,” Zak said. “I told my parents I had no reason to go to college. I arrogantly thought that college was not for me.”

However, Zak’s parents urged him to attend college. He would be better for the experience, they said, and would learn much about life both in and outside of the classroom. Reluctantly, Zak agreed and moved into a UW-River Falls residence hall in August 2021.

That decision was a life changer for Zak, he told an audience gathered at the Scholarship Recognition Event and Donor Social Oct. 8 at UW-River Falls and organized by University Advancement. The scholarship recognition event occurs annually and is designed to bring together scholarship donors and scholarship recipients to learn about one another and make tangible connections.

Zak, a senior majoring in communication studies, was the event’s student guest speaker and music performer. The focus of his address was “finding my place” at UW-River Falls.

Zak’s residence hall roommate was someone he knew from middle school, and the two became best friends. Zak met numerous other students who have become vital parts of his friends network and he has taken part in countless memorable experiences during his time at UW-River Falls. He credits not only his social interactions but his learning in the classroom with making him a more complete person who is more aware of the world around him.

Along the way, Zak made an even more important personal connection. He met a friend named Laine, and the two subsequently began dating. They plan to marry next year.

“Finding my place wasn’t hard at UWRF because there is an honest hunger for healthy discussion, disagreement and learning,” Zak said. “‘I found my place’ isn’t about one student; it’s about a campus culture, when you walk into the (University Center) where students always hold doors for each other. It’s about the hockey team raising enough money for our favorite bagel chef, Barb, to make repairs to her house. UWRF fosters a culture of learning, kindness and positivity. It was easy to find my place here.”

Enabling students to find their place at UW-River Falls doesn’t happen by accident, Chancellor Maria Gallo said. Faculty and staff are committed to helping students link to academic and social opportunities that are key to their having success, she said.

“We not only welcome students at the start of every school year, we inform and celebrate them,” Gallo said. “We help connect them to their academic programs and faculty, familiarize them with our clubs and organizations, and share campus resources available to them in challenging times.”

Students also are encouraged to be their true selves, she said, and to be accepting of others who are different from them.

“True belonging demands that you present as your authentic self and be valued as a unique individual. That is being a Falcon,” Gallo said.

Rick Foy, assistant chancellor for university Advancement, shared that while our personal experiences with UWRF are unique and individual, and our journeys in “finding our place” vary, we all share in and celebrate this place we call “home.” A home that’s been around now for nearly 150 years. Donors have made UWRF a secure and special home to countless students in countless ways, including scholarship support.

Scholarships play a vital role in UW-River Falls students’ ability to attend school. UWRF students received nearly $3.5 million in university scholarships and tuition waivers, and nearly $1.2 million in donor-funded Foundation scholarships awarded to 613 students. Eleven new scholarships were created between October 2022 and October 2023, four of them endowed.

Seventy-two percent of UWRF students receive some type of financial aid, and 63% borrow money to be able to afford school. Scholarship funding enables students to take on less student debt, and for many, scholarships are life changing.

More than two years after enrolling at UW-River Falls, Zak considers the university his “place forever.” He recalls the many experiences that have helped forge his character and his life outlook and is thankful for all the support he receives that has made his college career possible. He plans to attend graduate school at UWRF for school counseling after he graduates in May and hopes to one day work with high school students.

“It is where I met my best buddy, a group of amazing friends who taught me a lot about life and opened my mind … and most importantly, my future wife. UWRF is home,” he said.

Written by UW-River Falls University Communications and Marketing

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