By Sarah Vickery
Josephine Hayes-Birchler just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in May with her bachelor’s degree. In the fall, she’ll attend dental school. And in April, she officially became an American citizen.
It’s all a little unbelievable. “Five years ago, if you had asked me if I would be where I am right now, if I would have gotten into dental school, if I would have had the grades that I have, if I would have the confidence that I have, I would have laughed in your face and told you no,” she said.
Five years ago, Hayes-Birchler had just immigrated to the United States from Uganda with son Preston and her now ex-husband, who is an American citizen. They lived in Madison, where she worked as a certified nursing assistant. In 2015, marital difficulties forced her to file for divorce, but before she could find a place to go, her ex-husband kicked her out of their home. Hayes-Birchler bounced among living in her car, a homeless shelter and on friends’ couches.
“While I was staying at the shelter, I started thinking about going back to school,” Hayes-Birchler said. “It was crazy. That shouldn’t have been my No. 1 focus – but I was thinking about going to school. So I applied to UWM.”
She saw education as the way out of poverty for her and her son. Hayes-Birchler talked with College of Letters & Science student advisor Jennifer Hack, who helped her apply to the university and chart out her classes on the pre-dental track with a cell and molecular biology major.
“I remember the day I moved. My son was napping. Nothing was unpacked. I sat in the middle of the room and I broke down and cried,” Hayes-Birchler recalled. “I was like, this is crazy. I didn’t have a job in Milwaukee. I didn’t have child support from my ex-husband. I didn’t have help with babysitting. I didn’t have anything; I didn’t know anyone.”
But she did have motivation – the son she says is her greatest accomplishment in life. Now 6 years old, Preston loves to explore, go to the park and ride his bike. He’s also the reason Hayes-Birchler got out of bed each morning to go to class.
“There are times I don’t feel like studying, but I say no, I need to do this,” Hayes-Birchler said. “I want him to have a good life – not just a good life, but a life where we don’t have to struggle.”
To put herself through school, she worked at a nursing home and later with an in-home care agency. Along the way, she forged a support system: her dear friends from Madison, Jim and Edith Davison, as well as friends in Milwaukee; her UWM advisor, Hack; and her professors, who understood if she occasionally had to bring Preston to class. Also important: the crew at UWM’s Life Impact program, which assists disadvantaged parents in attaining an education.
In April, about a month before her UWM graduation, she took her U.S. oath of citizenship, with UWM supporters, friends and Preston cheering her on. They’d stood by her throughout her four years of college, which were full of early mornings, long hours at her job, school and studying. But when Hayes-Birchler learned she’d been accepted to Marquette University’s School of Dentistry, it made all of that work worth it.
“I would like my own dental practice and I would like to work in low-income areas. I know what it feels like to struggle,” said Hayes-Birchler. “I would like to be able to give back to help people who were in my situation.”