Ann Mittlestadt is comfortable with her disability—a visual impairment that makes it hard for her to see.
To navigate student life, the nontraditional special education major from Beaver Dam found ways to adapt and succeed during her years at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She used magnified readers to navigate her Axenfeld Reiger Syndrome and secondary glaucoma—two different conditions each affecting one of her eyes. She also relied on her professors from the College of Education and Human Services (COEHS) and navigated the UW Oshkosh campus with the help of her service dog, Tory.
Mittlestadt began her educational career years ago, earned an associate degree, spent some years working in various jobs and in 2012 came to UW Oshkosh to conquer a bachelor’s degree.
“It’s sometimes hard because I am disabled, but I really wanted to do this,” she said of UW Oshkosh’s education program, which she calls “one of the best programs in the state.”
“She entered our program having been told by many others all of the things she could not do and I think the thought of completing a bachelor’s degree was a bit daunting, but she has worked very hard to meet all of the requirements,” said Stacey Skoning, chair of the Special and Early Childhood Education Department—and influential professor in Mittlestadt’s life.
Mittlestadt will graduate Saturday, May 13, at spring commencement, something that has been a dream of hers for years.
“It’s unimaginable. It’s like, ‘pinch me,’” she said. “I have been told ‘no’ a lot in my life, I have defied everything and cannot believe I am here,” Mittlestadt said.
For Mittlestadt, graduating from UW Oshkosh is a big deal, but so is participating in her commencement ceremony—a task that is not exactly easy for someone with a visual impairment. Luckily for Mittlestadt, her service dog will be participating in the ceremony right along with her.
“She’s not just a service dog, she is my best friend. She is my left hand and I couldn’t do any of this without her,” Mittlestadt said.
Yet she has visions of Tory running across the stage to her beloved professor.
“Stacey has really kept me going. Everyone has down times, but she’s always there for me. She’s been my cheerleader,” Mittlestadt said. “Stacey and Tory are the best of friends. I think she’ll run to her across the graduation stage.”
Skoning said having a service dog helping a student has been a learning experience for faculty and students in UW Oshkosh COEHS classrooms. It’s a situation she welcomes and believes it speaks to the inclusive nature of the people at UW Oshkosh—and to the kind of special education teacher Mittlestadt is trying to become.
“It has been difficult for many to refrain from petting the dog while it is in class, but we have been working hard with Ann, and her dog, on the training that will be needed for the dog to successfully navigate the K-12 public schools,” Skoning said. “We provided Ann with space to work on our floor in the building. That way, Tory has to learn to stay with Ann. She can’t wander when someone interesting walks by, she can’t jump on people, and she is learning the difference between times when her harness is on (work time) and when her harness is off (play time).”
“Having a dog with her has been an asset for Ann. Not only does a dog help her navigate our campus, but it increases her social interactions. Everyone loves a well-behaved service dog, and it acts as a great conversation starter with others who might not take the time to start a conversation with her otherwise,” Skoning added.
Mittlestadt said sometimes her disability has been a source of judgment for others—and she hopes when people meet her they will be reminded that people with special needs are capable and smart.
For Wendy Van Ahn, assistant to the director at University Books & More, it was an interest in Tory that first drew her to Mittlestadt. Van Ahn remembers seeing the duo at Countdown to Commencement and then again upon their visit to the bookstore to purchase not one, but two, caps and gowns.
“I was fortunate to be at the front of the store and overheard her conversation. I shared in Ann’s excitement of her impending graduation and that she was making plans to dress Tory in full regalia,” Van Ahn said. “I told Ann that I would be happy to help her with tailoring a gown to fit Tory.”
Van Ahn looked into the options for regalia for Tory and eventually found an online resource to make sure the graduates could match for the Kolf Sports Center ceremony.
“I love sharing in the excitement of every student who comes into the bookstore to purchase their graduation attire. Making that purchase is an indication that they are nearing the completion of a major achievement and one that is to be celebrated,” VanAhn said. “I felt no different with Ann and Tory. Since we don’t have service dog gowns, I offered to help Ann make that happen. It was a no brainer.”
Van Ahn, who was a nontraditional student herself, said she understands just how important graduating is—and wanted to make the day special for Mittlestadt.
“A nontraditional student has many different facets, but for many it means they have life/family responsibilities and obligations that often take precedence and priority over their education,” VanAhn said. “Ann not only has many responsibilities and obligations in her life and family, but she also deals with physical challenges on a daily basis that makes working toward a college degree even more difficult. I admire the perseverance and determination that she has shown in order to earn her degree.”
“I am thrilled to be one very small part in helping Ann and Tory celebrate her graduation. Seeing the smile on Ann’s face and in Tory’s eyes makes it all worth it,” VanAhn said.
As commencement day comes, and eventually goes, Skoning feels proud of the student she’s sending out into the world.
“Supporting Ann has pushed the skills of many of our faculty, myself included. While we all supported students like Ann in our K-12 teaching backgrounds, we don’t often have students with her level of need in our college classes. She had to live up to the same expectations as all of our other students, but we needed to think about the materials we used and the way we presented information,” Skoning said. “While Ann has a visual impairment, she also is a visual learner, so in my class, I had to really think about how I presented concepts and made materials accessible. Everything posted to D2L needed to be compatible with the software she had available to read it. With that support, she has done quite well in all of her education classes, and demonstrated her skills in the field.”
Mittlestadt will become a UW Oshkosh graduate with more than 1,500 others this spring commencement—joining more than 90,000 others as UW Oshkosh alumni.