Geography student wins McGraw Award for Student Excellence

April 07, 2014

Vedvig and FryeThe EF3 tornado churned across the yard and began shredding the house.

Ashley Vedvig, then 13 years old, crouched in a basement shower embracing her two cousins, aged 6 and 7. The tornado's pressure assaulted Vedvig's eardrums and, as the wind tore the home apart, Vedvig could not hear its wrath.

"It was like going down too deep in a swimming pool," she said.

Vedvig survived her direct encounter with the Aug. 18, 2005 Stoughton tornado and was left with trauma that evolved into a calling.

Vedvig today hopes to use her energy, passion and UW-Whitewater education to help others in the path of disaster, and she is the recipient of the 2013-14 McGraw Award for Student Excellence.

Vedvig is graduating in May with a major in geography and a minor in environmental studies. Vedvig, who has a 3.93 GPA, has an unapologetic enthusiasm for academic rigor.

"I take pride in being a really good student and trying my hardest," she said. "Tests are my bread and butter. I love studying."

Vedvig does much more than study. She has conducted and presented two undergraduate weather-related research projects related to how the El Nino effect causes changes in weather events, such as tornados.

She has been a leader or member of seven campus organizations, including WeatherHawks, a group that promotes learning about weather and climate. Vedvig helped found the club and served as president.

She volunteered with the National Weather Service, coordinated a blood drive and participated in a number of other campus volunteer efforts. In December, with her fellow WeatherHawks, she took a truckload of donations to storm-ravaged Illinois and helped with the cleanup.

During all of this, Vedvig has juggled as many as five jobs simultaneously, including work as a lab assistant, a campus service officer and a baker.

"It sounds really hard but I love every single thing I do," she said. "That's why I sign on for so much."

Alisa Hass, coordinator of science outreach, nominated Vedvig for the McGraw award. Hass said Vedvig has an impressive work ethic.

"She prioritizes what is important to her, and she goes for it," Hass said.

John Frye, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Geology, said Vedvig is simply, "outstanding."

"She is everything you want to see in a student," he said.

Vedvig is currently employed in a limited-term AmeriCorps position with Dane County Emergency Management. She said she hopes to devote her life to what that position entails; spreading knowledge about severe weather in order to help save lives.

"Nobody thinks it is going to happen to them," she said. "I didn't think it would happen to me, that's for sure."

In the aftermath of the 2005 tornado, Vedvig, along with her aunt, uncle and cousins, crawled out of the rubble that had been her relatives' house. They sought shelter in the back of a Sears delivery van that her aunt flagged to a stop. Through the windshield, Vedvig could see another rotating cloud. She began screaming.

"I thought I was going to die," she said.

Vedvig's aunt stopped a second vehicle, a yellow pickup truck driven by a storm chaser. The man ferried Vedvig and her relatives to safety.

Vedvig studied weather extensively at UW-Whitewater. Last May she participated in a UW-Whitewater Severe Weather Field Course that involved a 6,000-mile study trip across nine states looking for the very storms that haunt her dreams.

The class found some.

The students were in Moore, Okla., 11 days after an EF5 tornado smashed through the area, killing 24 people. While there, they helped wheat farmers clean fields of debris.

At another point on the trip, they captured images of a funnel cloud. They used technology and meteorological information to stay well out of harm's way, and Vedvig said she never felt unsafe.

"The more I know about tornadoes and how they form, the safer I feel," Vedvig said. "Knowledge is power."

-- Written by Ben Jones, Photos by Craig Schreiner


Jeff Angileri

Sara Kuhl

About the McGraw Award For Student Excellence

The annual award is offered to one UW-Whitewater student chosen from the current graduating class. The McGraw Award is the highest student award on campus and includes a $400 honorarium donated by the family of Arthur G. McGraw, who was an education professor and dean of the School of Graduate Studies. Students chosen for the award must have a minimum 3.5 GPA in their major field and be active in campus or community activities and organizations.

The selection committee follows McGraw's wish that the award be given to "An outstanding, well rounded UW-Whitewater graduate ready for the world of professional work and one who potentially appears ready to contribute in a positive way to society."