Unique program helps students earn a degree while raising a family
It was a bad week for Peter Armstrong. First he tore his ACL, and then he lost his job as account manger at a commercial cleaning firm. A single parent of two small children, Armstrong faced major decisions.
“I knew I would need surgery and would be out of commission for a while,” he says. “I wasn’t an attractive job candidate.”
He got help from UWM’s Life Impact Program, which supports student-parents as they navigate the demands of college and parenting. It stands out from student-parent programs at other universities and colleges for meeting a full range of needs along with tuition assistance: guidance on class schedules, emergency funds, advice on parenting a cranky toddler, a dedicated team of life coaches and financial-aid liaison.
“[This is] one of the reasons that the Life Impact program seems so unique. It’s meeting a number of different needs in one location, which is really admirable,” says Lindsey Reichlin, research associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “We haven’t seen a program quite like this in terms of combining the life coach aspect with [services such as] emergency funds. It’s pretty well-rounded.”
And that’s what Armstrong needed. “I had to re-teach myself to learn,” he remembers of his first months as a returning UWM student. All the while, he was raising a family and managing his household budget with a part-time restaurant job.
Yet two years later, he received a degree in urban and environmental geography, and then entered a UWM geography master’s program to study urban sustainable transportation.
“Without the Life Impact community I would not be on the brink of graduating with my master’s, that’s for sure,” he says.
The Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation first approached UWM in 2005 about establishing a student-parent program as a way to lift more families out of poverty, offering a $2 million grant to cover a six-year pilot. UWM embraced the program as a perfect fit within its mission to transform lives and strengthen Milwaukee through education and empowerment.
“Because we know that children who have parents that go to college are more likely to go to college themselves, we can have a huge impact on a family by helping student parents,” explains Natalie Reinbold, Life Impact’s program manager and life coach. “Student parents have amazing strengths, such as the ability to juggle multiple responsibilities and a high level of motivation to graduate.”
Numbers are impressive, but relationships are key
As of February 2015, the program has served 172 student-parents and 237 children, with a graduation and retention rate of 86.2 percent.
Compared to other UWM student-parents, Life Impact scholars have higher GPAs (3.1 compared to 2.3), and are less likely to stop and restart their studies. This is true despite the fact that students like Armstrong take on demanding “full-time plus” schedules.
Life Impact scholars must maintain a 2.5 GPA, meet twice a semester for one-on-one sessions with program staff, and attend one workshop.
Support that goes a (life)long way
When students visit the Life Impact office, even just to grab a cup of coffee, staff are trained to check how they’re doing on a personal and academic level, Reinbold explains. “Any time we see our students, we’re really assessing to determine if there’s something we can provide in terms of support.”
UWM alumna and Life Impact scholar Chanel Edwards says those close relationships kept her on track. “There were a few times when I came in crying or frustrated with a particular grade,” she says. Working with staff, she would review the syllabus and strategize the best ways to recover her grade. An education major, Edwards ultimately graduated with five job offers from local school districts.
One of the most popular services is Life Impact’s emergency funds program. One student was offered a campus job that required a valid driver’s license, but she had an old traffic violation that had mounted to $300 – money she didn’t have until she applied for emergency funds. “That $300 was holding her back from campus employment with a good wage that was in her field,” Reinbold says.
Armstrong received help filing paperwork each semester so he could receive state food and childcare benefits. He reduced his hours at the restaurant. “I could spend extra time with my kids, and extra time studying and actually being a good student,” he says.
The program’s renewable $5,000 annual scholarship covers about half of full-time yearly tuition for a Wisconsin resident, explains Assistant Director of Financial Aid Sue Minzlaff. The program’s successful track record has earned continued support from the Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation, in addition to grants from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation.
Expanding the impact
Reinbold says the Life Impact team are seeking new potential donors, and hope to reach more parents, including some not already enrolled at UWM.
“Sometimes we have to encourage parents to see they should consider college,” she says. “Some prospective students don’t even know that they could get into UWM, let alone get a scholarship.”
Perhaps they can find inspiration in current Life Impact scholar Dezirae Taylor, a social work major with plans to graduate early and a 2-year-old daughter.
“Because I am a mom I feel a little more pressure,” Taylor says. When her daughter enters school herself, Taylor says she wants her to look up and know “my mom has her degree.”