Making college dreams come true

May graduate realizes childhood ambition: to become a scientist

Laura Zinnel

Posted 3:47 p.m. Wednesday, July 21, 2021

“Every day that I am alive I am amazed by the human brain. How do electrical signals jumping around the mass of tissue in my skull create my reality? How do vibrations from across a playground become the sound of children laughing?

These are questions from Laura Zinnel.  She has always been curious like this.

“In elementary school I would tell people that I wanted to be a scientist,” recalls Zinnel.

In high school, she decided on a professional career in neuroscience.

Although her family had no money to help her pay for college, she kept dreaming about it — even out loud.

“Most people would respond: ‘OK, but what’s your back up plan?,' " she recalls.

Today, Zinnel still doesn’t have a “back-up plan.” But it appears she doesn’t need one. This past spring  she completed her third and final year at UWL with a double major in mathematics and psychology. Next fall she will attend graduate school at Iowa State University with a goal of earning a doctoral degree in mathematics and neuroscience.

Zinnel says while some have doubted her college aspirations, others have been an inspiration. Her mother was always supportive of her college dream. Her older sister, Brittany, was living proof of what a college education could do.

Brittany Zinnel, ’15 and ’18, earned a double major in psychology and biology with a chemistry minor. She continued on to earn a master’s degree and is now a practicing physician assistant at Gundersen Health System.

Brittany attended UWL about seven years earlier, received scholarships to help pay her way, and is now a physician assistant at Gundersen Health System.

"She made it clear to me that it is possible for us to go to college and pay for it. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,” says Laura. “We can do it.”

Brittany never questioned whether she would attend college — even as the first in her family to go. “We came from a very poor background and being able to have a better and more secure lifestyle has been a huge motivator,” she says.

Finding a financial path to college

Laura and Brittany’s college education has been possible largely because of scholarships.

Brittany, valedictorian of her high school class, received several large scholarships for the honor. Laura applied to about 30 scholarships coming into UWL, and relied on them to pay for her first year.

“Something my parents and I agreed on was the importance of adjusting to school first before getting a job,” she explains. “I didn't want to have all that money thrown away because I failed my classes.”

Not working had a positive impact on her grades, but it put a dent in her savings. She completed her first year at UWL with only $52 dollars left to her name. The following two summers she made up for it working part-time jobs that helped pay for her remaining two years.

Because scholarships supported her part-time work, she didn't miss out on the college experience. Laura has been a part of Psychology Club, intramural soccer, Math and Stats Club, Screaming Eagles Marching Band (SEMB), Womxn and Minorities in Mathematics, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and undergraduate research in math and psychology. She received a dean’s distinguished fellowship, an undergraduate research and creativity grant, and a spot in the McNair Scholars Program, which helps prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies.

Laura Zinnel was a legacy scholarship recipient, along with receiving numerous other scholarships during at UWL. Zinnel also received the John E. Magerus Award for the Outstanding Graduating Senior from the College of Arts, Social Sciences & Humanities.

Laura says growing up without a lot taught her an important lesson about life: You get out what you put in. Her advice for others wondering if they’ll make it, is to apply that lesson whether seeking scholarships or paid research opportunities.

Now Laura and Brittany’s younger sister, Gabrielle, is also a UWL student.

Both Brittany and Laura are thankful for the opportunities college has presented, and the support they have received from generous people to make their education possible.

Each gift has meant more than just money, says Laura.

It’s another voice telling her that “back up plan” can continue to stay on the backburner. She will be a scientist one day.

She’s a Maroon Tycoon

College has been possible for Laura Zinnel through hard work and scholarships. She earned a spot on the distinguished “UWL Maroon Tycoon” honor roll her senior year.

This select group of students has dedicated their time and effort to finding and applying for scholarships, and each has been awarded more than $10,000 in scholarships in a single academic year.