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For many, pursuing a degree is a stage of life filled with many changes—an opportunity to try out and find new interests and a time to define their identity. For senior Ashley Wesenlenak, of Oshkosh, it took switching majors several times before finding her passion in women and gender studies.

“It takes time to find your place in this world and develop confidence and to find your passions,” Wesenlenak said. “For me it came with age, life experience and having my daughter, which led me to my passion for helping women with childbirth and breastfeeding.”

The women’s and gender studies major at UW Oshkosh explores the status, experiences and achievements of women, how people create and perpetuate gendered social structures and how these structures impact social issues.

Headshot of Christie Launius“All of our students are required to complete a 120-hour internship or study abroad trip,” Christie Launius, Women’s and Gender Studies program director, said. “We encourage our students to pursue their passions in their internships and Ashley stands out in her work to find an experience that lined up with her passions.”

Wesenlenak is an intern at Winnebago County Public Health Department where she works with the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and with the breastfeeding alliance.

In her internship, Wesenlenak is working with area daycares to help support breastfeeding mothers. Wesenlenak said it was her internship that helped her earn one of 15 spots in the Wisconsin Women’s Policy Institute (WPI).

The WPI, part of the Wisconsin Women’s Network, consists of four training retreats in Madison, where fellows learn how to advance policy projects in the state legislature. The 2015–16 WPI of 15 women is organized into four teams working on a specific policy advocacy project on issues related to women’s health, safety and economic security.

Wesenlenak (third from left, front row) met Maureen Fitzgerald, Hunger Task Force, and Laura Dresser, Center on Wisconsin Strategy, through the Wisconsin Policy Institute.

Wesenlenak (third from left, front row) met Maureen Fitzgerald, Hunger Task Force, and Laura Dresser, Center on Wisconsin Strategy, through the Wisconsin Policy Institute.

“I was so excited to be selected and am the second-youngest person in the Institute,” Wesenlenak said. “The Institute teaches women to be more active in the legislative process, and it is teaching me to be a more effective advocate, which I am able to bring back to the community.”

Wesenlenak’s WPI team is working on an address confidentiality program (ACP), which gives survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking a substitute address to use for mailing, public records and service of process to help keep victims safe by keeping their residential address private.

“By lobbying for the ACP bill, I gained insight into the legislative process and learned through the Institute how to lobby for legislation,” Wesenlenak said. “The institute has helped me become more confident and develop my advocacy skills.”

For Launius, the hands-on application, like what Wesenlenak is gaining in her internship and fellowship, is the ideal the Women’s and Gender Studies program strives for with all of their students.

“Our coursework is in place to challenge our students to think in an abstract and theoretical way, and to see Ashley applying what she is learning in the classroom is really rewarding,” Launius said.

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