Meals with Mentors

Alumni bring life experience to the table at Dinners On Wisconsin!

Photo by Andy Manis

Some UW-Madison undergraduates think they know exactly what they plan to do after graduation. However, many haven’t quite figured it out, and for these students, talking with alumni whose careers have traveled the road less taken can be invaluable.

Every semester, the Wisconsin Alumni Student Board (WASB) and WAA offer Dinners On Wisconsin! (DOW), a series of dinners that bring alumni and undergraduates together to talk about school, careers, life after college and anything else that comes up along the way.

Alumni based in the Madison area volunteer as hosts and provide a meal in their home or at a local restaurant for a small group of UW students. About 30 dinners are held over a three-day period, and a large percentage of hosts have participated in the program multiple times.

Here, three Badger grads who hosted dinners in fall 2013 reflect on their own distinctive career paths — and how they try to encourage students to follow their passions and let everything else fall into place.

Tasteful experiences

Debra Shapiro MA’91
Debra Shapiro MA’91

The first course of Debra Shapiro MA’91’s career came in the form of textile design. She moved to Madison for a graduate program in the School of Human Ecology but left to work in restaurants, where she honed her skills in a different kind of artistic medium.

“I enjoyed cooking for people and inviting people in, creating an experience for them,” she says. “I [feel] like my cooking communicates with people better than my art had done.”

This core interest in creating experiences to expand others’ perspectives sparked Shapiro’s decision to pursue a career with a teaching component. She followed in her mother’s librarian footsteps to earn a degree from the School of Library and Information Studies, where she is now an instructor.

In her spare time, Shapiro continues to enjoy sharing her passion for cooking by maintaining a food blog, Deb’s Lunch, and running a private dinner club. She became a DOW host because it offered an unusual opportunity to cook for a new audience.

Over the years, she’s noticed some subtle shifts in her dinner conversations with students.

“When I was starting college, more students were like, ‘I want to learn and study what I like,’” she says. “They weren’t as worried about a career. During the recession, the kids were more career-focused. This most recent group was a little more open in their attitudes.”

To reassure her guests, Shapiro draws on her experience reading applications from prospective graduate students to the library program. “What we look for when we read applications is if you can talk intelligently about the experience you do have and how that could help you in the profession that you want,” she says. For example, Shapiro believes her background in customer service helped her to land her first job in a library.

“My mother used to say it’s a long life,” she says. “Even if you don’t get your dream job at 25, you’re not going to work at the same job your whole life. All kinds of experiences add up and make you into an interesting — and employable — person.”

Flexible foundation, sustainable career

George Dreckmann ’88
George Dreckmann ’88

“I think, deep in my heart, I’m a frustrated college professor,” jokes George Dreckmann ’88, the City of Madison’s recycling coordinator and a prominent voice for community sustainability.

However, Dreckmann isn’t interested in lecturing the students who come to his DOW dinners. Instead, he’s more focused on fostering lively conversations about topics ranging from recycling to history and public relations.

“It gives me a chance to wax on like the wonk that I am,” he says. “It’s nice to engage with other people who are into the topic.”

Dreckmann also sees the DOW program as a way to build personal relationships with energetic and innovative undergraduates. Thanks to guests he’s met through the years, Dreckmann has gotten involved with several on-campus sustainability initiatives, and he’s also offered internships to a handful of past attendees.

The opportunity to connect with Badger students is something that Dreckmann especially appreciates because he didn’t have much time for socializing while pursuing his own degree.

“I’ve been a janitor, a carnival barker and worked third shift at a tanning salon,” he says. “I went back to school when I was 35. I got my degree in education when I was married and had a child. We had a house and a mortgage.”

Rooted in Madison, Dreckmann took a temporary job with the city while looking for work as a teacher. One thing led to another, and his current position blends his skills in communication, teaching, lobbying and research.

“My educational experience opened up doors that weren’t going to be open to me,” he says. “It was critical.”

When students ask about how he got where he is now, Dreckmann says he recommends staying flexible and learning to adapt skills to new contexts.

“You’re not precluded from a career track because of your major,” he says. “Take the skills that were refined at the university and really [put] them to work.”

Campus to community

When Lan Waddell ’71 was a child, a graduate student from India came to visit his family’s farm. At the time, Waddell attended a one-room school in rural Wisconsin and didn’t have a television. He never forgot the opportunity to meet someone from “a world away,” and more broadly, how rewarding it can be when scholars and community members get to know each other.

Waddell went on to obtain a dairy science degree and to work on the family farm with his father and brother. He spent more than 15 years as a full-time farmer and then decided to go to law school after getting involved in a “legal jangle” with the local school board.

“I was looking for a change, to do more people stuff,” he says. “[Law] looked like something I could be doing. I never had a plan.”

After earning his JD from Marquette University, Waddell established a practice in Columbus, Wis., that works predominantly with family dairies and other small agricultural businesses.

He maintains strong ties to the UW by periodically teaching a class for the Farm and Industry Short Course and participating in alumni events at an agricultural fraternity and through WAA’s Grandparents University® program.

“Giving back and being involved is good, to encourage those kinds of programs,” Waddell says of his decision to become a DOW host. “Anytime people ‘out here’ have contact with the university, it makes both sides better.”

Waddell and his wife, Gail Lamers Waddell ’72, enjoy getting to know the wide range of students who make the trek into the country to have dinner on their farm — the same farm where Waddell grew up.

“What could be more fun than to go somewhere where you don’t know anybody?” he says. “It was just four kids who happened to get in the car that night. It makes for an interesting evening.”

Alumni in the Madison area can learn more about the Dinners on Wisconsin! program and how to host a meal during an upcoming spring series at uwalumni.com/students.