Student honors husband's memory by completing her degree

July 6, 2016
Oftedahl received her hood and honors cords at the 2016 spring commencement while her family cheered from the crowd.


Graduating from high school in 1978, Brenda Oftedahl dreamed of attending college to become a veterinarian, but because college wasn’t an option for her at that time she began work at a local bank. When Oftedahl married and had children of her own, she and her husband, Marv, instilled the importance of education in their three kids. “My kids knew from day one they would go to college because it’s something I wanted to do and couldn’t,” Oftedahl said.

In 2010, however, that all changed.

Because both of her sons attended University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Oftedahl received a lot of university communications and marketing materials in the mail. “One day a flyer came to the house that said I could get a business degree online, and I just decided it was something I was going to do.”

Oftedahl started the Business Administration bachelor’s degree program while working full-time as a bank compliance officer, and she set a goal to graduate in 2015. When Marv was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2011, she knew her plan had the potential to change, but she kept at her coursework. “Everyone at UW-Platteville was very supportive,” she said. “I can’t say I asked for many special favors, but I let my professors know Marv was in the hospital, and everybody was so kind and accommodating, and I greatly appreciated that.” During the tumultuous time, Oftedahl developed a special relationship with her advisor, Cameo Updike, who was instrumental in helping Oftedahl stay on track to graduate.

Marv achieved remission, but the cancer returned in 2014 — this time terminally. “I was on schedule to meet my five-year goal when the cancer came back, but I said ‘no,’ and we did some traveling,” she said. Oftedahl said the decision to slow her coursework down to spend more time with Marv was a difficult one for a sentimental reason. “I wanted him to see me graduate,” she said. “But it wasn’t to be. I thought it was more important to spend time with him than focus on classes.”

In an effort to spend all the time with Marv she could, Oftedahl took a break from her coursework until June 2015, the month Marv died. After that, she pushed herself to complete courses for September. While it was difficult, concentrating on her assignments helped to ease her mind. “When I was at home, rather than focus on the fact I was alone, I had something to do that would distract me,” she said. “School has been truly therapeutic for me.”

With Marv’s passing, Oftedahl has found support for her education from other family members. She is the first one of eight children in her family to earn a college degree, and when she told her 84-year-old mother she was graduating, her mother insisted on coming to commencement. “I said, ‘Are you sure mom? It’s four-and-a-half hours in a car,’ ” she said with a laugh. “She hasn’t quite understood all that’s gone into it, but she’s very proud of me. I think it means more to her probably than to me.”

On May 6, Oftedahl crossed the stage and graduated with honors, while her mother, daughter, and two sons cheered her on. When asked how she felt about being at graduation, she said it was both exciting and sad.

“It was hard not to have my husband there,” she said, adding that Marv was supportive of her decision to get a degree from the very beginning. “It was all out of our pockets, and he never ever complained. He knew it was just something I was doing for me.”

Even though Marv couldn’t be physically present at her graduation, he was there with Oftedahl in her heart, just as he’s been for the last year.

“He was very proud of me,” she said, pausing. “More so than I knew until after he passed and people started telling me things he’d said about me.”

Oftedahl is proud of herself, too, and after making one of her personal dreams come true, she plans to eventually earn her master’s degree. As of now, she said, UW-Platteville Online is her top choice.

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