Access to education comes easier to some more than others, but the inspiring stories of four women from Southeast Ohio remind us how education is the key to growth, confidence, and success, and that we must never take it for granted.
These women, Brenda, Maria, Lisa and Alicia (whose full names cannot be shared) have—with the combination of their own courage and grit, and resources from Ohio University—overcome hardship, poverty, abuse, and addiction to further their education and better themselves and their families.
To improve themselves, the women are either currently working through or recently graduated from the newly named Ohio Career Ready Campus. This program encapsulates the services provided by the Stevens Literacy Center, the Aspire program, workforce development training and college preparation.
A little over two years ago, the Patton College of Education’s Stevens Literacy Center received the Aspire adult literacy grant from the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE), making Ohio University the first four-year institution to receive such funding.
The grant helps build the skills adult learners need to become employed or pursue higher education or training.
“Not only does receiving workforce training or graduating with a GED from the OHIO Career Ready Campus provide hope and build confidence, but also causes a positive ripple effect,” said Dr. Julie Barnhart Francis, director of the Stevens Literacy Center and OHIO Career Ready Campus. “If individuals achieve higher levels of education, they can attain better, higher-paying jobs and support themselves—and their families—more easily, improving their lives, their children’s lives, and strengthening our economy. It also instills in their children a better appreciation for education.”
Brenda who is working on her GED through the OHIO Career Ready Campus, is a recovering addict from Athens County who spent time in My Sister’s Place before the shelter helped her get her own apartment. Along with providing her education, the OHIO Career Ready Campus is also offering her a technology-lending program that has provided her with a laptop to continue her studies virtually.
“Brenda has worked through some difficult months of her recovery,” Aspire instructor Sally Young said. “She felt that continuing her work through distance learning has helped her focus on a positive activity and helped her maintain sobriety. She is making strides toward greater independence, and her confidence has grown. It is truly encouraging as an instructor to see how our Aspire program has such a positive effect on our students.”
Maria is a 45-year-old mother of two from Hocking County who struggled with alcohol and prescription drugs. She said asking for help was her biggest struggle, but with help from the Drug Court program and support from others, she was able to get her life back on track.
“I have worked hard to graduate [from Drug Court],” Maria said. “I am working hard to stay sober. I have a great mindset that has helped me grow and succeed at my goals. I have kept a good job and am earning my GED through the Aspire program.”
Aspire instructor Amy Guda said she is inspired and moved by Maria.
“This student attends class and Aspire events during her break at her workplace as an essential worker,” Guda explained. “She attends class on her smartphone and spends her free time distributing food to families in the community. She has a smile that could fly a rocket to the moon.”
Another student of Guda’s, Lisa began Aspire GED classes and also received a laptop from the OHIO Career Ready Campus technology-lending initiative. Lisa dropped out of high school when she was in the 11th grade. She was 17 and pregnant with her first child. After she had her daughter, she attempted to get her GED multiple times but never stuck with it. Then in 2015, she began her addiction that lasted several years.
“I lost so many things,” Lisa said. “I felt like no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t break the chains of addiction. My whole world was so dark.”
Then Lisa hit rock bottom. After suffering a drug-induced psychosis, she spent a week in a psychiatric hospital. She said that during that week she truly found her inner peace. She was released to her father’s care and was reunited with her daughter. Now at 23, she has been sober for more than two years and recently graduated with her GED. She is the mother of two daughters and attends NA meetings regularly.
“Recovery can be hard. It took a big impact on my self-esteem,” Lisa said. “In my addiction, I would have never thought I would have as many supporters to help me become better. I hope that anyone that struggles with addiction finds what inspires them to get help and get better.”
As part of an Aspire capstone project, Lisa studied Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset, which changed her perspectives on how to live and think about herself. In a PowerPoint presentation for the project, she said her Growth Mindset Goal is to further her education so she can build a better future for her family.
Another woman, Alicia, started GED classes while in the Rural Women’s Recovery Program (RWRP). Evelyn Nagy, a case manager at RWRP who coordinates resources for women working on their GED while in residence, said she had some uncertainties about the OHIO Career Ready Campus lending laptops to the center’s population, but after working with Alicia and hearing some of her phone calls home, she said surprising things began to happen.
“In every call home, Alicia shared her pride in her GED work and being ‘trusted’ with ‘this really cool’ laptop, and in return, her family shared how excited they were for her and told her to really take advantage of this opportunity and all the things she can do with her GED,” Nagy said. “Alicia became more and more motivated. It has changed her belief about her potential. The women I work with are constantly being pushed down, and when I see them being lifted up, it gets rid of that uncertainty about loaning a laptop. That’s a long story to explain something so simple, but it’s a moment that can really change a person’s life, and those are the moments that count.”
The highlight of the Aspire program in the OHIO Career Ready Campus comes each spring through the Commencement Ceremony for all of the GED graduates. It is not uncommon for OHIO Career Ready Campus students to receive their GED and pursue post-secondary education. Some, in fact, are current OHIO students. Other OHIO Career Ready Campus students, meanwhile, receive their GED and immediately enter the workforce.
“The strength and determination of these women—and that of our other Aspire students—is miraculous, and it is extremely rewarding to watch them succeed,” OHIO’s Patton College of Education’s Dean Renée A. Middleton said. “One of President Nellis’ strategic goals is to enhance university engagement with the community, and this is a wonderful example of that. The Patton College and the Stevens Literacy Center want to work with community partners as much as possible to provide resources and human services to people who need it most.”
The Stevens Literacy Center is in the third year of the three-year Aspire grant that funds OHIO Career Ready Campus and hopes to be able to continue this important work. Other OHIO Career Ready Campus and Literacy Center stakeholders include Athens County Job and Family Services and OhioMeansJobs Work Station, Tri-County Career Center, Hocking County OhioMeansJobs Center, Workforce Development Board #14, and Athens County Libraries.
More information on the Stevens Literacy Center, OHIO Career Ready Campus, and the Aspire program is available at www.ohio.edu/education/literacy-center/aspire.