Harold and Lynne Ornes have established a health and science education scholarship at WSU

Heather Gerdes: Forging Her Future

By Margaret Cox

Sometimes, you have to throw old traditions to the wind and forge new ones.

That's been the case for Heather Gerdes, whose path to Winona State University has been anything but traditional. In 2008, this ambitious, thirty-something mother of two decided to return to school to build a better life for herself and her children. And the Erika K. Scholarship provided the support and inspiration she needed to carve a new future for her family.

Gerdes is no stranger to handling multiple roles. She skillfully juggled motherhood and full-time employment as a dental assistant in Winona. Looking for something more meaningful, she enrolled as a part-time student at Winona State with the intention of majoring in Business Administration.

After taking a public speaking class, she switched to Communications Studies, which fit her outgoing personality. "I really liked the idea that it is a broad degree that can be used in many professions. I find the art of communication very interesting, and I realized that I can use this skill in my everyday life."

Next, Gerdes considered her career options. "I've always wanted to work with the elderly or the terminally ill and their families, helping them make the transition into the golden years a little easier," she said. So Gerdes set another goal:  to become a patient advocate.

Achieving this goal was going to take a significant amount of time, given her status as a part-time student. Gerdes met with a financial aid counselor and was encouraged to apply for the Erika K. Scholarship. Established in 1997 by Robert and Erika Kalitta Gilbertson, the scholarship was created to support non-traditional women students who have faced hardship and difficult choices.

When she received word of her selection for the Erika K. Scholarship, Gerdes was ecstatic. "This scholarship has given me the ability to finish school full-time, which will put me back into the workforce sooner. I couldn't have asked for such a generous gift at a more important time."

Today, Gerdes maintains a full-time course load, works part-time, and keeps tabs on two energetic children.

"I hope to fulfill the spirit of this scholarship not only by making a difference in the community through my profession, but also by creating my own scholarship one day. The positive impact that the scholarship has made in my life and the lives of my children will stay with us forever!"