Student, mother of eight finds balance in a busy life

Dec. 10, 2013

by Sean Kirkby

The Guth family gathers, smiling, on the steps of their Monroe, Wis. home. Melissa Guth and Steve Guth keep watch on their brood from the top step.

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Melissa Guth, like many students, has to strike a balance between being a full-time student with her other commitments. Unlike most other students, Guth’s other main commitment is to her eight kids.

Even though they range from a 1-year-old to a 16-year-old who is starting to look at colleges, Guth manages to schedule time both for her family and for the schoolwork that is allowing her to become the first of her brothers and sisters to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

The daily routine begins at 6 a.m. when Guth and her husband wake their children and prepare them for the day. After dropping her youngest off with her parents and dropping the others off at school, Guth commutes an hour to campus from her home in Monroe, Wis.

Depending on the day, Guth is on campus until early afternoon or late evening before returning home to help with dinner and get the kids to bed by around 8 p.m.

“And then I start my homework,” Guth says.

Guth’s family includes four children from her first marriage, two children from her husband’s first marriage and two children that they have had together.

Guth family at mealtime

Mealtime is another busy time for the Guth family.

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She had her first child when she was 17 and a junior in high school. A supporting family and school helped make it easier for her than many other teen mothers.

However, she says she felt distant from her friends who graduated and went to college while she, already married, entered the workforce.

“The people that I did fit in with, as far as they had the same kind of things going on in life, were 10 years older than me,” Guth says. “I didn’t really have anywhere that I fit. I felt very isolated, and trying to find my own place where I fit in the world was very difficult.”

She worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for six years alongside her first husband, a challenging job to balance with her young children, with late nights and constant trainings.

During the day and after she left her EMT position, she worked in the photo studios of Swiss Colony, a company that sells cheese and sausage but also owns catalogs focused on other products, where she helped create sets for the catalog pictures.

However, returning to school was still the long-term goal.

“It was something that I always wanted to do,” Guth says.

Guth attributes her return to school to the support of her husband, Steve Guth. He said it was difficult for her to go back to school because of her selfless care for her family and others. However, he continued to push her.

“I saw in her the endless possibilities that I see in someone who hasn’t had the chance to go any further,” he says. “I thought she would love being able to do some certain things and I wanted her to figure out what those were. I really thought it was an awesome opportunity to her and I was very excited – somewhat daunted, but very excited.”

“It’s been an entire family effort to make sure this dream is able to happen.”

Steve Guth, Melissa's husband

He noted that scheduling has always posed a difficulty in making sure he and Melissa had enough time for their children and themselves. With family excursions in their 15-passenger van, he noted that sometimes they have to take a break such as the two of them attending Melissa’s first Badger football game during Homecoming week.

He added the support of both sides of the family has been critical in giving Melissa the chance to return to school.

“It’s been an entire family effort to make sure this dream is able to happen,” he says.

Guth attended Madison Area Technical College to satisfy her breadth requirements, often studying math similar to what her 16-year-old was studying. She says they would have competitions on who could do better on various topics.

However, her long-term goal was always to transfer to UW-Madison to pursue a degree in social work.

“It was always the plan,” Guth says. “I never imagined that I could get in. …I actually didn’t have anything else planned. If I didn’t get in, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do because I didn’t really want to go anywhere else.”

Mary Paulauskis, UW School of Social Work academic adviser, describes Guth as an enthusiastic student dedicated to the field of social work.

“What I remember the most about her was her talking about the privilege about coming to the UW,” Paulauskis says. “I kind of had this revival of pride about the university. I thought that was wonderful to acknowledge the privilege of it.”

“If you really want to do something, you can do it. I’m proof positive of that.”

Melissa Guth

According to Paulauskis, adult students returning to the school are common since social work requires people with a variety of life experiences. While those students still make up a minority of students in the school, their experiences bring a diversity of background and perspectives to classroom discussions.  

Guth says she turned toward social work as a way of improving people’s lives. She plans to work with children and families after graduating, but might also pursue a master’s degree.

Coming to the school has taught her things that she never knew about herself and demonstrated she can be a full-time student and mother.

“If you really want to do something, you can do it,” Guth says. “I’m proof positive of that.”