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Removing college obstacles for single moms

Connecticut's Housatonic Community College widens support programs
University Business, July 2016
College boost: Students in Housatonic Community College’s Family Economic Security Program attend retreats to learn career skills such as public speaking and networking.
College boost: Students in Housatonic Community College’s Family Economic Security Program attend retreats to learn career skills such as public speaking and networking.

An act as simple as handing out bottled water and granola bars before a long evening class can change the course of a college career—especially when the student on the receiving end is a single mother who has just rushed over to campus after a full day at work.

Of course, bigger hurdles like tuition, child care, transportation and housing can stand more imposingly in the way of getting a degree. But every little bit helps as long as you provide a range of support services, says Alana Wiens, director of the Family Economic Security Program at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“We’re a whatever-it-takes organization. We want to remove as many of the obstacles as we can to get them to graduation.”

The growing program, which launched with 50 students in fall 2015, is open to all students but has enrolled many single mothers seeking help balancing family, work and college. At its core are three tiers of coaching: academic, career and financial. Students attended an average of five coaching meetings in the first semester.

The program’s advisors guide students in setting career goals and choosing classes that will give them the skills to land a better job or transfer to a four-year school. Either way, the goal is to help them move into the middle class, Wiens says.

Students learn how to make effective resumes, and can practice public speaking, networking and other workplace skills. Tips on budgeting, managing debt and improving credit—all skills needed for when they begin earning higher salaries after graduating—are also introduced, Wiens says.

The program also provides scholarships students can use to pay for child-care, transportation, books and other expenses. And it has emergency funds to help students repair a car or pay a utility bill.

At the same time, many of these women just need someone to talk to. Wiens and other program staffers help students problem-solve, for instance, if they have to drop a class or if they get a discouraging grade. “Single moms are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders,” Wiens says. “Sometimes, they just need another adult to say, ‘You can do this.’ ”

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