Kayla Miller had just a little under 30 credits left to go to complete her degree in psychology when she left UWM in the fall semester of 2022. Her father had died unexpectedly, and she was a single parent raising two children. She thought about returning to school in the spring 2023 semester, but then “life, my job and my family got in the way.”
Now Miller is back in class with the help of a new program that provided incentives and support to help students overcome barriers to returning to finish their degrees.
Over the summer of 2023, UWM started the Access to a Second Chance program to help students like Miller who have “stopped out” before completing their degrees. Among other incentives, the program provides financial grants and support from a re-entry coach for the return to classes.
So far, the program has awarded $340,000 in scholarships from the Moon Shot for Equity Fund to 558 students returning to UWM to complete their degree. This has led to an increase of 5% in stop-out students with more than 90 credits who have returned to the university.
Coaching builds confidence
For Samantha Scaffidi, a junior working toward her degree in studio arts, the coaching has been a key factor in building her confidence. She left the university during the 2019-2020 academic year, partly because she wasn’t sure she had chosen the right major and partly because of the pandemic. Now she is back and thriving in her new major and has renewed confidence in her decision to complete her degree.
“Before I didn’t have confidence in myself or what I was doing,” Scaffidi said. Now, she’s really enjoying school, she added. “Jenna (Balek) has been super helpful.” Balek is re-entry manager for the Student Success Center and one of the members of the Navigate Success Team that helps students make their comeback.
Scott Sutton had started at UWM two times before returning this fall. In 2007, right out of high school, he started a music education and clarinet performance major, but decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do. So, he accepted a job offer at the Apple Store in Mayfair Mall. In 2016, he gave college another try – choosing a major in industrial engineering. However, when he began doing internships in robotics and lasers, he found he was bored, so he left school again.
After he met up with recruiters from Rogers Behavioral Health Center, he took a job with that organization as a mental health technician. “It’s been a great fit, and I love it.” So, he came back to UWM during the fall semester to work on his bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Finding a balance
The team working with the students helps them explore options that help them balance jobs, families and classes. They can also connect them with opportunities for additional scholarships.
Miller is working full-time at a law firm and chose online classes as the best fit for her life. Scaffidi switched from a full-time job to part-time work as a bartender so she could attend classes Monday through Friday. “Now I’m really enjoying school,” she said.
The Access to Second Chance team makes a point to reach out to students who might be interested in completing their degree, contacting them with outreach campaigns and phone calls.
That personal contact and the financial aid made a difference for Miller.
She was just beginning to think about returning when she was contacted about the “Moon Shot for Equity Pounce Back Scholarship” by email. Although she doesn’t check email much in the summer, a follow-up call helped her make the decision.
She is grateful UWM staff members were persistent in seeking her out to let her know about the opportunity, Miller said.
“It honestly made me feel really good since I don’t have many options for financial aid,” she said. “This grant helps me a lot. I’m still going to end up paying a little bit out of pocket, but definitely this is going to assist me. Had I not gotten it, I’m not sure I would have been able to afford to go back this semester.”
Sutton received a Moon Shot Pounce Back Scholarship and plans to graduate in May 2025. “The process was really easy and well laid out,” and the scholarship really helped, he said. He expressed his gratitude to the team in an email:
“I just wanted to thank you, so much, for helping me obtain this scholarship. It has made a HUGE positive impact in helping me to afford returning to college, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Scaffidi hasn’t quite decided exactly how she will use her studio arts degree, but she’s confident that she will now finish her degree, she said. “I’m engaged in my classes. It’s fun and I’m learning some useful skills. I’m totally sure when I complete my degree, opportunities will present themselves.”
Although finishing her degree while raising her children and working is challenging, Miller is also determined to finish. She was attracted to the field of psychology after she received much- needed counseling help from a therapist when she faced some personal challenges.
“I want to get my degree, maybe go on for a master’s degree. It’s not just about making a bit more money in this field. I really have a passion for this kind of work because I really want to help people.”