Graduation at UW-Madison: Going a Thousand Miles an Hour


Natalie Villegas is a first generation student from the north side of Chicago who took advantage of the CeO Program to find a sense of identity on a large, majority white campus.

By Jonathan Gramling

There was a catchy phrase from a commercial that said something like, “You’ve got to grab for the gusto because you only go around once in life.” It seemed that Natalie Villegas held that as her motto during her UW-Madison career as she admittedly “went a thousand miles an hour” pursuing educational experiences while earning her degree at UW-Madison.

Villegas grew up with her mom on the north side of Chicago mostly in close proximity to Wrigley Field. Villegas, an admitted Cubs fan, knew, as a first-generation student from a home with limited economic means, that she needed to perform academically in order to achieve a college degree.

“There are seven selective enrollment pre-college high schools,” Villegas said. “It’s a crazy process. As a seventh grader, you have to take tests. It’s harder to get into a good public

high school in the city of Chicago than it is to get into a good college because there are only seven good ones. It’s a difficult task, but I did make it into, at the time, the third best public high school in the city. I went to Lane Tech. It’s the biggest high school with a little over 4,000 students. I came from a really big high school that was super diverse. There were kids from all over the city. It was a really fun time and it definitely prepared me really well for college.”

It also didn’t hurt that Villegas had some some scientific research.

“I did relationship psychology research at Northwestern,” Villegas said. “I had a family friend who is a PI at Northwestern in the Relationship Psychology Department. He got me connected with a grad student doing her dissertation. I helped her with a lot of evidence-based and data input for her.”

Villegas applied to two colleges and selected UW-Madison because it offered her a Banner scholarship that made a UW-Madison degree affordable. And it was through a WISCIENCE camp that Villegas found out about CeO.

“One day, we went to the CeO office,” Villegas said. “They said, ‘You should apply. It’s a really cool program. I didn’t apply to CeO my freshman year. I think I was too late to apply. At the end of freshman year, I thought I should totally do it. I applied and I am so glad I did. Our scholarship group isn’t as close-knit as things like the PEOPLE Program. With Banner, we weren’t that tight-knit. There are no programs that connect us together. We just all have the financial scholarship. With CeO that really filled the gap of having a community on campus. Going to the CeO office was always a great time just seeing people I knew and seeing familiar faces in the office was awesome. Overall, CeO has been really great throughout college.”

CeO was Villegas’ base as she stayed super busy through her collegiate career. As a first-gen student, Villegas had to hold down a part-time job or two to make ends meet.

“I worked for University Housing,” Villegas said. “Even before coming to college, I applied for this job in my dorm. I was in Chadbourne Hall. I would plan events for our dorm. That was a great way to find another community. It was a great job because I worked where I lived. I would literally plan Movie Night and Pizza Night. I was a cool gig. I did that freshman and sophomore years. And then half of my junior year, I stayed with housing and planned a ton of events. It was another way to meet new people. There are a lot of housefellows who were also a part of CeO. I would see people at CeO who were connected to University Housing and a lot of PEOPLE Program scholars were also housefellows. Since we are all part of these groups, there’s a kind of connective with that. There’s a lot of diversity and you could find a cool group on campus.”

Having to work didn’t hold Villegas back from enjoying many aspects of college life.

“Throughout freshman year, I was involved in research lab,” Villegas said. “I was a part of the Undergrad Research Scholars. That was a great way to get me connected to research labs on campus. I remember applying for that before I even came to UW-Madison and luckily I got it. I worked at the Center for Healthy Minds on campus. It was called the Midas Research Project. It was a psychology-based neuro-psychology research lab.”

And when school ended that year, she headed to Uruguay for another science-based experience.

“Uruguay was a really cool experience,” Villegas said. “I headed out there with three other UW students. There was another kid who was finishing up his freshman year and then there were two girls who were finishing up their fourth year on campus. They were older and so it was nice that we had this mix of ages. It was an unpaid internship, but they paid for our housing. They had a house there and we all lived together. The university that we worked at was walking distance. We walked to the university. We had our PIs there. We would work alongside a grad student and each of us worked on a different project. I was in a zooplankton program. The PI I was working with was a zooplankton expert. I just helped him collect samples. We went to a river out in Uruguay and collected samples. All I did was work in the lab under a microscope separating sediment and water and zooplankton. I’m glad I did it because I was always wondering if I liked ecology research. It was a fun time, but I knew that I didn’t want to work with nature. I like hanging out in nature, but I don’t want to do research and do that for the rest of my life.”

For all four years, Villegas played team lacrosse and did some volunteer work in the community like tutoring at Sherman Middle School with Centro Hispano’s Escalara Program.

And she kept her eye on the prize for finding her place in the medical/research field. Her CeO advisor informed her about the Center for Pre-Health Advising Health Professional Shadowing Program.

“It was probably the most amazing two weeks that I ever had at UW-Madison,” Villegas exclaimed. “They connected us with different providers every day around UW Health and we would just shadow them,” Villegas said. “A lot of us who applied to this program were low-income or have no connection to the healthcare setting. Some were first generation. That was such a cool way to meet new people and get our feet wet knowing what that medical field was like. I always knew that I wanted to go into a healthcare setting. I just didn’t know what that would look like. I remember coming into college that I said I was a pre-nursing student. I didn’t know if I wanted to do nursing. I always knew I could see myself in the healthcare field. I didn’t know if I wanted to go into med school or not. I remember hearing one day about Physician Assistant. That sounded like something I wanted to do. Doing that shadowing program really hit that home and I could see myself being a physician’s assistant.”

During the initial COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, Villegas sheltered in place with her mom in Chicago. But she came back to Madison in mid-summer to help care for the plants at a store she had taken a job at. And then she began working in jobs that would take her to the next level in her education.

“In January 2021, I became a COVID-19 tester on campus through UHS,” Villegas said. “When I became a COVID-19 health technician, the first day, we started doing the saliva testing. It was a big mess. No one knew what was going on. I also started an EMT course in January with Madison College. That’s what I am planning on doing during my gap year. I’m really excited to be out in the field. I’m planning on being an EMT in Chicago, so I will move back there in August. This summer, I plan to continue to work with UHS on COVID-19 testing and trying to enjoy my last summer in Madison and then head to Chicago to be an EMT and rack up some patient care hours and then apply to PA schools. With my volunteerism and serving as a COVID-19 technician, it looks really good on my resume for PA school. We had to have put in 1,000 patient care hours to even apply.”

Now that she is a UW graduate, Villegas had some words of advice for those coming after her.

“Take every opportunity that life hands you,” Villegas emphasized. “Just make sure that you have fun, but also don’t let opportunities slip away. ‘Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow. Maybe I’ll apply to this next year.’ College is a great time to try new things. If you don’t like something, pick something else. There is so much that you can do. I’m grateful I got some really cool opportunities in different topics and situations. I got to do so many cool things. Also make sure that you put your mental health first. And make sure you enjoy the classes you take. I’ve taken some really amazing classes at UW-Madison, some that I didn’t really need for my major.”

Natalie Villegas is well on her way to achieve the next step in her journey through life, becoming a physician’s assistant, thanks to UW-Madison and the CeO Program.