Abandoned by her Chinese birth parents at two weeks old and placed in an orphanage, Marissa Gerstner got a chance at a new life when she was adopted at the age of 1½ by a single mom from Fort Atkinson. However, her early years were full of struggles.
Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in the first grade, Gerstner needed medication to overcome her tendency toward anger and outbursts that could become physical.
"It's been a journey," Gerstner said."The medicine I was put on has helped me a lot. It has helped me in school, so I can organize my thoughts and feelings, and (it) enables me to work toward earning the grades I want. I feel that I am more focused, and I accomplish more things."
Supported by her adoptive mom, dedicated educators and medical professionals, Gerstner worked through those challenges to thrive.
As a seventh-grader, she had the opportunity to assist a teacher with an art class and found that she loved working with students.
Progressing through high school, Gerstner determined she wanted to be a teacher and to help children learn, particularly those who struggle with special needs like ADHD or a developmental disability.
A 2018 Fort Atkinson High School graduate, Gerstner went on to Carroll University, where she currently is enrolled in a dual-certification elementary and special education program
. She just finished up her sophomore year and will be returning to college in the fall as a junior.
Earlier this year, Gerstner learned that she has been chosen as a recipient of a national "Dreams to Success" scholarship.
In total, the award went to only 21 students from around the United States.
"This is an impressive group of resilient academic achievers who are focused on building a brighter future for their careers, while also helping their families and communities," Robert C. Ballard, president and CEO of Scholarship America, said of the recipients.
"They have overcome major challenges in their lives including serious illness, abandonment, abuse, family loss, poverty and homelessness to pursue their dreams for their future. These students demonstrate the power of a scholarship in transforming their lives and paying it forward to help others."
As a scholarship winner, Gerstner was invited to take part in the national recognition ceremony in Washington D.C. However, the global COVID-19 pandemic got in the way of those plans, and she spent her special day "Safer at Home," with an online ceremony rather than the in-person experience.
The Fort Atkinson alumna said she was incredibly honored to be chosen as a scholarship recipient, saying that these funds will help put her on a path to help others like herself.
Gerstner actually applied for the scholarship in the spring of 2019 and in found out she had been chosen as a semi-finalist late last November. At the end of February, she learned that she had been chosen as a recipient of the prestigious award.
Gerstner credits her mom, Marlene Gerstner, for encouraging her to go for it—not just in terms of this specific scholarship, but generally to do what it takes to achieve her dreams.
She said her mom always has been there for her, teaching her to believe in herself, stay positive and try her hardest.
"Do I sometimes fail?" Gerstner asked. "Yes, but that also shapes me as a person. Through hard work and determination, I will achieve my success.
"I didn't choose education for the money," the scholarship recipient said. "I chose it to make a difference for kids."
She said the program at Carroll has been great, moving her toward dual certification in four years and giving her great deal of hands-on experience working with children while she is working toward that degree.
"In a lot of schools, you don't get to work directly with kids until you're student-teaching, but Carroll gives you a lot of chances to make sure this is really what you want to do," Gerstner said.
Gerstner has never regretted her choice to study education.
She said she hopes, ultimately, to teach at the second-or third-grade level, but the need is so great in special education right now that she might begin her career in that area.
"I want to help children reach their full potential," she said. "Every child deserves a change, and I want to help children achieve that ..."
As she works toward her career goal, Gerstner has served as a summer school volunteer and helped with an after-school program.
"When I am working with children in schools, I feel pride," she said. "It is so inspiring when you are helping a child out with a problem, and after you explain it to them, they get it. They have this ‘lightbulb' moment, and it makes both of us smile.
"I believe in all of my students," Gerstner added. "Anything they put their mind to, they can do. I want to inspire my future students to believe in themselves."
She said that a teacher should help students find the answer, not "give them answers," and that educators should be flexible and try multiple different approaches in their pursuit of reaching every child.
"My goal is to be a teacher who goes above and beyond," Gerstner said. "I want to be someone who makes a difference.
Since 1958, the nonprofit Scholarship America has distributed $4.3 billion to more than 2.6 million students. The organization works with partners to lower barriers to a college education and give students the support needed to succeed.
The "Dreams to Success" Awards ranged from $5,000 to $15,000 per recipient, depending on need.
"I was thrilled to learn I was selected for this honor and am deeply appreciative of (this) support," Gerstner said. "Working with children is my passion and becoming a teacher has always been my dream," she said, noting that the best part is the excitement that she can see in students' eyes when they learn something new.