Single mom balances school, family, named USA Today Academic All-Star

Published: March 13, 2007 | 5791st good news item since 2003

Single mom, non-traditional student, double major, honors student; all words that can describe a variety of students at UW-Eau Claire. But add USA Today’s Academic All-Star team member to the mix and only one student can use all these words to describe her.

Unlike most traditional students, senior Lori Scardino has to juggle Girl Scout outings and school board meetings with her demanding academic schedule.

The 30-year-old chemistry and biology double-major maintains a nearly perfect GPA while raising her two daughters and participating in numerous clubs and organizations.

A rocky beginning

Scardino said she never planned on the life she has now. Born in Florida, her family moved to Wisconsin when she was very young. At age 12, her parents divorced, and she lived with her father until age 15.

“I was placed in foster care by child protective services when I was in high school, and bounced around to different high schools and foster homes.”

She eventually moved in with her mom and graduated from high school her junior year so she could start college. But during her second semester at UW-La Crosse, she was dealt another blow when her father died and she had to leave school to take care of her brother, who was living with their father in Tomah at the time.

In 1996 Scardino married, something she now says was “not the best decision” she’s ever made. She had two daughters, Alexandra, 10, and Olivia, 8, by 1999 and in 2002 she divorced. That was the same year she said she decided to go back to school.

“I decided to return to school after my divorce. I was working a job full time at a hospital that I really liked but the pay wasn’t that great,” she said, adding she had to work every weekend. “I wanted a career that was more financially beneficial to my family and would allow me to have more time with my family.”

The first time Scardino tried to enroll at Eau Claire she said she wasn’t accepted because her GPA was too low, a fact she now says is ironic. When she left La Crosse she didn’t withdraw from any of her classes, which destroyed her GPA.

After spending a year at Chippewa Valley Technical College, Scardino brought up her grades enough to enroll at Eau Claire in the fall of 2003, where she said she planned on majoring in math education.

Discovering science

Scardino said science had always interested her, but it was an accident that prompted her to major in chemistry. She said she signed up for general chemistry her first semester but almost didn’t take it because her schedule wouldn’t allow her to take the lab and the lecture with the same professor.

“It was the only one that fit into my schedule so I decided to take it anyway, and it was the best thing that ever happened,” she said. That’s when she met chemistry department chair Scott Hartsel, who persuaded her to major in chemistry.

“She knew she loved science, and she knows she always did well in it, but she didn’t really know what she could do with science,” he said.

After Scardino switched her major, she said she figured she would teach high school chemistry after she graduated. Hartsel then tried to convince her that she could go on to become a professional scientist.

“He asked me what my plans were for graduate school, and I sort of laughed at him and said, ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t afford graduate school. I can barely afford to be here,'” Scardino said.

That’s when Hartsel told her that graduate schools pay for students to complete their programs, and everything changed for Scardino.

“It opened a whole new world for me,” she said.

Scardino started working on research projects the summer after her freshman year. Her first big project came when Hartsel had her work on a project he and other professors were collaborating on.

“I put her on a project that I didn’t really think was going anywhere on some new fluorescent molecules that could be used to visualize structures inside cells,” Hartsel said. “She just took that project and ran with it and we got amazing results – better than I ever expected to see. And we started to realize that this was something that could be patentable.”

He said the project gave them some great data and led to some patent applications. He attributes much of the success of the project to Scardino’s hard work.

“Not only is she nearly a 4.0 average (chemistry) major, but she’s a natural in laboratory work, she can see what needs to be done in an experiment, she does it carefully and keeps great notes.”

Right now, she and junior Vinay Rao are working on a project involving methanobactin, a protein-like molecule.

“We’ve been using instruments to analyze its structure,” Rao said.

Along with working on projects, she has even had some of her work published, something students strive for at the graduate level, Hartsel said. She has also already given three presentations at national and international meetings.

“Graduate schools are jumping all over her with offers,” Hartsel said.

Academic All-Star

Scardino’s hard work paid off in January when she was honored by USA Today as an Academic All-Star and was one of 20 students named to the all-USA College Academic First Team. The honor, Hartsel said, puts her in a very elite group of students.

“In a way it’s as prestigious as a Rhodes scholarship. In fact several of the students on the (team) are also Rhodes scholars and many of them (attend) places like Harvard or Princeton,” he said.

Scardino said she didn’t think she had much of a chance when Hartsel nominated her for the award.

“I honestly didn’t think I would fit the mold or their view of what an undergraduate student was because I’m a non-traditional student and a single mom and I do so many other things,” she said. “Because of those things, I’m limited to doing things here in my community.”

She said the committee judged her on criteria including community involvement, campus involvement and research she had done. She said national presentations and publications were also considered.

She said she was shocked when she received the award, which included a $2,500 award, a trophy and a feature in USA Today.

“I can’t think of a more deserving student,” Hartsel said of Scardino.

A balancing act

Besides her accomplishments in science, Scardino is constantly participating in campus and community organizations. She volunteers at Lakeshore Elementary School, is a troop leader for both her daughters’ Girl Scout troops, is the chemistry department tutoring coordinator and grows her hair out to donate to Locks of Love, to name just a few.

“I don’t know how she does it,” said Rao, who has done research with Scardino over the years. “She’s able to do it all.”

Scardino has an hour-by-hour schedule printed out for every day of the week.

“Time management is crucial,” she said.

“I try to put my children – the time that we have together – as my first priority. I don’t do my own homework or things like that until they’re in bed.

“Sleep deprivation is definitely the key to my life,” she said laughing.

Although she has a busy schedule, Scardino doesn’t complain.

“I’m in college because I want to be here and I want the degree. I’m a double major because I want to be. No one forced me to do any of these things.”

She also stays organized by prioritizing her activities.

“I try to be somewhat selective about the campus organizations I’m involved in so that it’s things I’m really passionate about and that are important to me,” she said, adding she keeps a list of all her activities to remember them.

What the future holds

After she graduates in May, Scardino said she and her daughters will move to Madison where she will begin attending graduate school and hopes to get her doctorate.

“I want to do biomedical research while I’m there,” she said. “I definitely want the work that I do there to have some pragmatic application. I want to help people in some way.”

Ultimately, she said she would like to become a professor at a university such as Eau Claire.

Hartsel said he hopes for the best for her.

“Lori is one of the hardest working students all around that I’ve ever been associated with, especially considering all the extra things she’s dealing with, as a parent and a non-traditional student, that most students don’t have to deal with,” he said.

Rao echoed Hertsel, saying that what he admires most about Scardino is her perseverance and persistence.

“Some of the unique or distinct things I get to see, other than her academics and what other teachers get to see, is who she is as a person,” he said.

One thing that really stands out about her is that she always takes the time to help others before helping herself.”

Of all the things Scardino has accomplished so far, she put it best when telling a story about when the USA Today photographer came to take her photo for the article. He said he wanted a picture of her doing something outside the classroom and asked what some of her proudest moments were.

“When (the photographer) asked me what my proudest accomplishment was, I told him that was an easy answer and it wasn’t on his list,” she said. “I said the thing I’m most proud of is being a mom.”

Published in Motherhood
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