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Elizabeth Ahnert calls it “one of those universe-coming-together moments.”

After graduating in 2019 from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh with a degree in political science, Ahnert tried out a few different career paths. She spent almost a year at a credit union. She was a legislative assistant in Madison. Neither of these turned out to be jobs she felt passionate about.

Two years into her professional career, she felt lost. When a group of her friends asked her about it, and more specifically asked what she really wanted to be doing, Ahnert told them she would love to work somewhere like the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry, the nonprofit where she’d volunteered as part of her third Quest class in the University Studies Program.

“I’ll never forget it—we were standing around a kitchen island in one of my friend’s cabins and I said, ‘I would really love to work at a place like the place I volunteered at in college. They’re just so small and that just doesn’t exist outside of that organization,’” she said. “And they talked about, ‘Well, you could try to start that somewhere else and I said it’s just not the same.”

A month and a half later, Ahnert received an out-of-the-blue text from Tracy Slagter, the UW Oshkosh political science professor who taught that Quest course years earlier. Slagter’s message: The Oshkosh Area Community Pantry was hiring, and she should apply.

“Every time I tell the story I just get goosebumps because it doesn’t feel real,” Ahnert said.

She did apply. And she got the job, moved back to the Fox Valley from Madison and, within a week of when she started as program manager at the pantry, married Nathan Ahnert, who also graduated from UWO in 2019 (though with a computer science degree).

All told, she got married and landed her dream job within a matter of days. A universe-coming-together moment, for sure.

‘She changed my whole life’

Ahnert—who was Elizabeth Turner before tying the knot—grew up in the Madison-area village of Mount Horeb and came to UWO because of its just-right size. She began Slagter’s Quest III Politics of Food class as a kinesiology major but had started questioning her future. She was a first-generation college student who hadn’t yet found a field of study she was passionate about and thoughts about whether a four-year degree was for her began to creep in.

The Quest class changed everything.

“She would learn something new and then just be astounded by it, galvanized by her new knowledge,” Slagter remembered. “Everyone in the class could see it, too, and they would sometimes tease her about how ‘into it’ she was.”

Tracy Slagter

Volunteering at the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry was part of the course, and Ahnert went above and beyond, inspiring her classmates and even volunteering to help with the pantry’s involvement in the Oshkosh Half Marathon.

She’d soon change her major to political science.

“That one semester was so pivotal in my experience that it’s the reason I continued to be a student and see it through,” she said. “Tracy (Slagter), if I could give that woman an award from myself, I would. She changed my whole life.”

Relationships and results

The experiences at the pantry stayed with her for the ensuing years. Ahnert herself grew up in a food insecure household and being able to help others in similar situations was meaningful—and the approach of the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry stood out among other operations she’d seen.

She now oversees programs that include a partnership between the pantry and the Oshkosh Area School District that gets snacks and fresh fruit into 22 schools and learning environments in the community and the Kids Corner program, which gives children their own small area inside the pantry to shop for snacks and learn about making healthy food decisions.

“I will tell people all day long I don’t know that I’ve never had a bad day at work because I love what I do and I love who I get to do it with and I love who I get to serve,” she said.

To Slagter, the way Ahnert found her path forward at UWO and then as a professional is a perfect example of how important relationships are in higher education.

“Our students are more than just bodies in our classrooms—they are the future of our communities, leaders-in-waiting and absolutely amazing people we want to get to know,” she said. “Every time I teach a class, I want my students to know that even if I never have them in class again, I’m still cheering for them, still willing their success. And sometimes I hit the jackpot and get a student like Elizabeth who becomes not only an alum, but a treasured colleague and friend.”

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