Grendahl overcomes with belief, support and celebration

Bri Weigel, NLJ Correspondent

First-generation college students often face a unique set of challenges, and Alison Grendahl is no stranger to such hurdles, personally or professionally. 

Grendahl, a 2009 Newcastle High School alumnus and first-generation college student, recently earned her master’s degree in education with a concentration in higher education administration and an online instruction certificate from the University of Wyoming. Her peers also nominated her to speak at the graduate commencement ceremony, and the university awarded Grendahl the honor. 

However, Grendahl initially questioned her place as a commencement speaker. As Grendahl said, imposter syndrome started to sneak into her conscience. 

“Imposter syndrome – the feeling of being a fraud. The sense that at any point they’ll find out you’re not credible, and you don’t belong here,” Grendahl said in her speech. 

Grendahl explained that, in preparing her speech, she asked herself why she was chosen to give the commencement speech over other graduates before she realized that her thought process should actually be the focus of her message. 

She simply needed to remind herself that through belief, support and celebration, anything is possible.

Between earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology and completing her master’s coursework, Grendahl worked as an adviser at UW for first-generation students and those with low-income backgrounds, documented disabilities and other factors of diversity. 

In her role as an adviser, Grendahl said, imposter syndrome plagued her students. She related well to their struggles and counseled them to believe in themselves, lean on their support systems and celebrate both successes and failures. 

“It’s very important in higher education to have champions. We all need champions but particularly the first-gen learners, and that’s Alison Grendahl. She’s their champion,” said W. Reed Scull, Grendahl’s adviser and an associate professor of higher education administration. 

Grendahl put her own advice into practice and tackled her speaking opportunity with confidence and transparency. She shared more of her thought process. 

“When working with my students, I was always trying to reframe how we learn. We’re always learning and growing. That’s kind of my thing,” she said. “Only when you’re at this point of celebration does it seem like, ‘wow, how did I do that?’ When you’re going through it, it’s that belief and support and those small celebrations that learning and growing is happening.”

In her speech, Grendahl acknowledged the difficulties that college students face, thanked her support system and celebrated the moment, all while standing in front of what Scull estimated to be an audience of over 1,000 people. 

Looking back on her childhood in Newcastle, Grendahl said her family and teachers always labeled her as “the talker,” and with a background in community theater and student council, she said that she found the speaking situation likely less intimidating than most. 

Grendahl acknowledged that she did not always feel that way, however.

“I was one of those kids that didn’t want to take public speaking at UW. I was so scared of doing that in front of a whole bunch of strangers,” Grendahl said.

So, she completed her college public speaking credit in high school through Eastern Wyoming College with former Newcastle High School English teacher Kara Sweet. Grendahl credits the class and Sweet’s instruction for preparing her to speak at commencement.  

With her speech and coursework behind her, Grendahl said she is in the process of moving to Loveland, Colorado, where she hopes to find a role supporting teaching. While she does not want to teach, Grendahl said, she is interested in jobs focused on learning and curriculum, professional development and instructional design. She said her online instruction certificate opens doors to support teaching in online education to make content more engaging and develop an environment that is easier for teachers and better for students. 

Scull said he knows that Grendahl chose the right career path and she’ll find success in the role she decides to pursue. 

“She is a person who celebrates others and their achievements, and she provides support to her colleagues. She just has a very strong belief in the power of education to provide individual and societal change,” Scull said. 

Grendahl said that she found her role in education outside of leading a classroom when meeting with her own adviser as a first-generation college student scraping by in her undergraduate studies. She always thought she’d work as a teacher but soon decided she wanted her adviser’s job. 

Through hard work, Grendahl graduated and landed the same role, quite literally. She moved into her adviser’s office – she welcomed her students into the same office where she met with her adviser to sit in the same chairs where she sat.

“I said I would do this. I said I wanted to do this. And here I am, doing this,” she said. “It was a full circle, beautiful life moment. This is what I’m supposed to be doing right now.”

Grendahl said everything continued to lead to her present situation. Through belief, support and celebration, she graduated from her master’s program with a 4.0, and she’s looking for her next role supporting education.

According to Scull, “the world is her oyster.”

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