As Elladee Zak graduates from Winona State University, her optimistic perspective reflects the positive experience she has enjoyed over the last four years: “Trust in your ability to succeed. You are smarter and stronger than you think, and so many people are rooting for your success.”

The St. Cloud, Minn., native came to WSU as a freshman, attracted by the beautiful scenery, the great reputation of the education program, and the small class sizes. But what ultimately made Winona home for Zak was the supportive and welcoming community.

“The most important thing that WSU taught me is that we are never completely on our own,” said Zak, who is a first-generation college student, meaning she is the first person in her immediate family to attain a four-year degree. “Coming onto campus my freshman year, I was so focused on solving problems alone. However, overtime I realized that so many around me were willing to help and support me in whatever way I needed, and that my ideas almost always improved after I shared and collaborated with others.”

For Zak, who studied Communication Arts and Literature Teaching (CALT), a WSU education is about so much more than what is taught in the classroom.

“My program, my job on campus, and the many campus events I have attended have given amazing advice and taught me helpful skills, such as leadership and cultural awareness,” she said. “These skills have prepared me for student teaching and will continue to help me achieve my goal of becoming a teacher.”

One of the biggest challenges Zak faced during her college career was learning to balance the demands of her life as a student and prioritizing her own success and wellness. Like many students, she worked on campus and sought scholarships to help pay the bills. She was grateful to receive the Augusta Nelson Memorial English Scholarship.

“[It] alleviated some of my financial stress, and allowed me to focus more of my energy into doing what I love: teaching and supporting students,” she said.

One of Zak’s favorite experiences during her time at WSU was working as Resident Assistant in Lourdes.

“I loved serving as a resource for the new freshmen students, building meaningful relationships with my residents and coworkers, and having the opportunity to use my creativity to plan exciting events on campus,” Zak said.

Support from faculty and staff at WSU was also central to Zak’s success. As she navigated the experience of student teaching, she was particularly grateful for the mentorship of Dr. Robert Brault of the WSU English Department.

“He is always readily available to answer my many questions, and he does a great job of preparing his students for success,” said Zak. “He models professionalism and advocates for future teachers. His teaching has been a paramount in my success as a student teacher.”

Zak will graduate with a degree in Communication Arts and Literature Teaching (CALT) and a minor in Communication Studies Teaching. Following graduation, she plans to stay in Minnesota and would like to teach Language Arts to middle schoolers.

Her final piece of advice is, “Don’t forget to laugh! Life happens, and sometimes your mistakes will turn into a great story.”

WSU Spring Commencement Ceremonies will take place Friday, May 4, in McCown Gymnasium on the Winona campus. The 9 a.m. ceremony will feature the College of Business and College of Science and Engineering. The 12:30 p.m. ceremony will feature the College of Education and the College of Liberal Arts. The 4 p.m. ceremony will feature the College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

Zak was selected by the WSU Student Senate as one of three student speakers for the ceremonies and will deliver the student address at the 12:30 p.m. ceremony.

For more information, visit or call University Communications at 507-457-5024.