UWM graduate hopes to help other families living with disabilities

Life Impact scholar Luisana Waukau balances coursework, an internship and volunteer work with her role as mom to Natalya (center) and Tatyana (left). (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

UWM graduate hopes to help other families living with disabilities

Luisana Waukau highlights passages as she works her way through a 40-page reading for a class. The babysitter arrived an hour ago for her 5- and 12-year-old daughters, who are off of school. Later in the week, there will be pediatrician appointments, a museum trip and her job in a downtown Milwaukee emergency room.

Doing it all, she says, is her only choice.

“My education is the most important thing I own,” says Waukau, the only one of her mothers’ three children to graduate from high school.

She’ll receive her bachelor’s degree from UWM in May, and credits her success – including awards for writing and community service – to her daughters, husband and the UWM Life Impact Program. Since 2005, Life Impact has worked to break the cycle of poverty by supporting nearly 200 students who could most benefit from a college degree, but are least likely to graduate: disadvantaged students raising young children. It has a retention and graduation rate of 86 percent and an employment rate of 96 percent for new graduates.

Applications are being accepted through May 13, 2016 for fall 2016 students. Enrolled UWM students and incoming first-year students can apply at:


A small advising staff provides academic and emotional support, family workshops and career-planning services to Life Impact scholars, who also receive a $5,000 renewable scholarship and access to emergency funds that can help pay rent, buy textbooks or cover brake repair.

Waukau enrolled at UWM after her husband, Jesse Waukau, graduated. Freshman year was an exciting time for Waukau, with her husband’s finance career flourishing and their second child on the way

But things did not go as expected. Their daughter Natalya suffered a traumatic brain injury moments before birth

When Waukau returned to school in fall of 2011, she did it with a backpack, breast pump, laptop and baby. The semester was a blur of medical appointments and anxiety, followed by a move to Minneapolis for Jesse’s new job. Waukau attended online classes, while missing family in Milwaukee and friends and faculty at UWM.

The family was back in Milwaukee by 2012. Waukau was back at UWM, this time as a Life Impact scholar herself.

Waukau says she didn’t know how to study or write a composition. Dyslexia eroded her confidence. Life Impact built it up.

“I walked in there, told them I didn’t know what I was doing,” Waukau said. “My advisor pulled out a syllabus from my course and we made a study guide.”

Then there was family life.

“Natalya was severely delayed,” Waukau says. “I was so scared. I thought she was going to die, and I was still going to class, managing my homework. That’s where Life Impact helped out.”

Life Impact coach and program coordinator Natalie Reinbold had attended Jesse and Luisana’s wedding. She watched their older daughter grow up, and celebrated Jesse’s success.

“Natalie is the only reason I didn’t drop out my junior year,” Waukau now says, with a laugh. “I didn’t want to have that talk with her. I told myself it would be easier to try one more semester.”

The Waukau’s life and health have improved. Natalya was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 2, which paved the way for effective treatments.

Waukau is majoring in women’s and gender  studies, a field that has merged, powerfully, with her experiences as the daughter, mother and sister of people living with disability.

She has an internship at Independence First, teaching young women about relationship-building, disability rights and self-esteem. Through Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, she provides on-call support to parents who need help finding resources for their children. After graduation, Waukau plans to be a program coordinator for an organization that supports families affected by disability.

“Women’s and gender studies teaches you the skills you need to see a problem and find solutions,” she says. “I want to use my experience to help people find the tools to help themselves.”042016uwm

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