Human Behavior, Justice and Diversity Department
University of Wisconsin-Superior
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Human Behavior, Justice and Diversity Department
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And she is a teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
"It's all about teaching and learning and students," she says. "That's what drew me here, that's what keeps me here."
On a recent Friday, Cuzzo gathered the UW-Superior mock trial teams in Yellowjacket Union. They were departing for a tournament.
"You need to be smart, but not only smart. You need to be wise," she said as she handed out owl pins to the 20 team members. "And not only are owls wise, but they take care of their own," the coach/cheerleader continued. "So take care of each other."
After a few more comments, she called everyone in to a huddle. They all put their hands in the middle, counted three and yelled "Mock and roll!"
Cuzzo grew up in tiny Aitkin, Minn., the daughter of a small-town lawyer who ran a solo practice and often took farm produce for payment from clients who couldn't pay cash. The Wyant Law Office was a family affair, with her mother running the office and Cuzzo and her siblings spending lots of time there.
As a child, Cuzzo says she was "a shy and fearful little person." Maybe because of her stature, she was bullied in school.
Teachers were her safe haven and her inspiration. "I have always loved learning," she says. "I can think back to elementary school and really remember what it was like to be fired up ... they saw things in me before I even knew they were there.
"When I look back, it was the teachers who really took an interest in me and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try new things," she says.
She excelled at forensics in high school and was recruited to Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., by their debate team. From there she went to law school, married and came to Duluth to practice law with her then-husband, Michael Cuzzo.
In the early '80s, women lawyers were practically unheard of in the Twin Ports. Cuzzo, however, found a home in Superior, at the law firm now known as Maki, Ledin, Bick and Olson. "At age 23, I was the only woman lawyer in town for a few years," she recalls.
Her skill at argumentation served her well in trying cases. But when she used those same skills in divorce cases, she began to question whether the adversarial nature of the American legal system served families best. "I saw families literally get ripped apart," she recalls. "My head knew how to do that but my heart was never OK with it."
Those nagging questions, and her lifelong love of learning, inspired her to earn a doctoral degree in alternative dispute resolution and eventually help establish the Legal Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
"So now I have these two conflicting parts of me -- the analytical, adversarial, competitive part, and the mediator part," she says -- a mix she and other Legal Studies faculty bring to the Legal Studies program.
"Students in our program are exposed to a broad range of tools to help solve society's conflicts," she says.
Cuzzo's competitive, adversarial sides -- as well as her cheerleader/coach sides -- shine as she leads UW-Superior's Mock Trial teams, which compete and win against schools that are often many times larger.
UW-Superior senior and legal studies major Taylor Tengwall says Cuzzo is a demanding mock trial coach. "She has this stare that some people find intimidating," he says, but she but also brings out her "Mama Bear thing" regularly.
"Before every mock trial tournament, she buys some token to make a point, cheer us on and gives us a pep talk," he says.
Tengwall says Cuzzo is the most thoughtful person he knows -- not just in the considerate sense of the word. "She's also a serious thinker. I respect her mind very much," he says.
Tengwall, an indifferent high school student, started college as an afterthought. He wound up discovering a passion for the law through Cuzzo and plans to pursue a law degree.
UW-Superior alumnus Jaramy Hansen says Cuzzo offered "redemption and opportunity" to him, a dreadlocked punk who played in bands, had a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas, and wanted to be a lawyer some day.
"I was cocky, I was arrogant, I thought everybody owed me something," says Hansen, who graduated in 2004, earned his law degree and now works as a tax court hearing referee in Michigan.
Cuzzo first did a double-take when Hansen walked in the door, but she worked with him. She urged him to take part in mock trial to help him connect with other students. "I tip my hat to Maria for really sitting down and working with me," he says.
In all of his classes, not just Cuzzo's, "the dynamic between student and teacher here was fantastic. It was something I didn't even have at community college, even with the smaller size there," he says. "There was just a lot of support to help you get through, and I had some issues."
Cuzzo, a full professor, divides her time between teaching legal studies classes and running the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, which supports instructional staff as they refine their teaching skills.
"There's no better job in the world than helping students achieve their dreams, she says. "It's that one-to-one relationship, that ability to help people grow into the people they want to be. "
At the same time, "I also get to carry the torch for the faculty," she says. "If you are nurturing and supporting your educators, they are able to take care of their students."
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