Achieving the dream of a college degree, through the Family Economic Security Program

Apr 06, 2017

Originally published on the Hearst CT News Blog.

Family Economic Security Program
Single mom Regina Scates, center, is on track to earn a degree from Housatonic Community College as a result of wraparound support provided through the Family Economic Security Program.

Two decades ago 17-year old Bridgeport high school grad Regina Scates was a single mother, raising a baby without the support of her parents. Despite the challenges of her situation, she wasn’t ready to let go of her dream of earning a college degree.

Determined to pursue her goal, she enrolled at Housatonic Community College and found a job. Scates knew going to school while raising a baby would be tough. But at the time, she had little idea just how long her journey would take.

“Over 20 years, I relentlessly tried to earn my associate’s degree,” says Scates. “But I had to continuously drop out. I didn’t have the resources to navigate college successfully.”

Pursuing a dream of higher education, against steep odds

Scates has never been short on dreams, commitment, and a heart for others. As a career firefighter in Bridgeport, she works two 24-hour shifts each week. Some days, that means waiting at the fire station. Other days, it means back-to-back emergencies – responding to car accidents, or putting out structure fires.

The work can be demanding, but it’s been a good job for Scates. Today, she’s still a single mom and is now raising three sons, one with special needs. The steady income and compressed job shifts have been a godsend, offering her the means and flexibility to raise her boys. And being a first responder has given her a chance to serve her community.

“I always had a passion to want to help people on a deeper level,” says Scates. “This job has fulfilled me in that way.”

And she’s keenly aware that every time she dons her gear, she’s serving as a role model for other young girls in her community who are looking for a path forward.

“It really gives them hope, and shows them what’s possible,” says Scates.

Still, over the years, Scates never abandoned her dream. As lucky as she’s been to have a reliable job, she’s discovered that steady work may not be enough to get a single mom through college.

Over and over again, Scates enrolled at Housatonic Community College and was forced to drop out. Sometimes she ran into problems with childcare, or unexpected emergency expenses that couldn’t wait. Often, she simply ran short on funds to cover both her tuition and the basics of life – like utilities, clothing and groceries.

By the fall of 2015, Scates had enrolled and dropped out of HCC so many times she was on academic probation. That meant she no longer qualified for aid, making her financial situation even more precarious when she started her classes. She didn’t understand how to get off the probation, and felt too ashamed to ask for help.

“I would think, ‘I should know this, and I should handle this myself,” recalls Scates.

Despite years of working towards her goal, her odds of graduating were looking more challenging than ever. That changed dramatically when Scates enrolled in the college’s Family Economic Security Program, supported through Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Fund for Women & Girls.

Giving adult students tool for success: the Family Economic Security Program

Launched at Housatonic Community College in 2015, the Family Economic Security Program provides wraparound support to low- and moderate-income adult students who are also single heads of household – a population that is, statistically speaking, at high risk of dropping out. The program is designed to increase graduation rates for these students by providing a full spectrum of offerings to meet their needs, from financial assistance and coaching to career services and peer support groups.

As one of the first students enrolled in the Family Economic Security Program at HCC, Scates found this model of support was just what she needed to progress towards her goal. Things started changing for the better the day she learned she had been awarded a program scholarship.

Family Economic Security Program
Regina Scates

“It took a huge burden off of me,” remembers Scates. “For the first time, I wasn’t asking myself, ‘Well, do I want to pay for daycare and food, or for my school books? That was a choice I didn’t have to make.”

Another weight was lifted when Scates’s achievement coach walked her through a plan for getting off academic probation.

“My coach Daniela sat me down and told me, ‘You are going to get through this, and you are going to get this financial aid back,’” remembers Scates. “I literally cried in her office. That was a huge milestone that helped me to move forward.”

Connecting with mentors who understood her challenges and could help her craft a plan for completing her degree was a new experience for Scates.

“I’m going to be 40 years old,” she says. “I never had anyone to hold my hand and walk me through the processes I needed to navigate to succeed.”

The coaching Scates receives through the Family Economic Security Program isn’t limited to academic advice. She’s also learning how to improve her financial future. When Scates started working with a financial coach, she thought her credit score could never get better. But after embarking on a plan to improve her numbers, her credit score climbed by 60 points.

“These are things I was never able to pull together before,” says Scates. “There’s progress.”

In fact, she believes coaching is the most powerful and lasting gift she’s received through the program. Each session with her coaches has instilled her with confidence, and changed her outlook.

“I can’t even put a price tag on how these coaches have empowered me to advocate for myself,” says Scates. “I just feel like everyone should have this.”

From academic probation, to Dean’s List

The Family Economic Security Program first took root in 2008, spearheaded by Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Fund for Women & Girls. A pilot program at Norwalk Community College led to an expanded program at Housatonic Community College, and ongoing analysis indicates that the model of wraparound support shows immense promise in helping adult students graduate with degrees, and go on to secure family-sustaining careers.

Family Economic Security Program
Regina Scates with her sons at Housatonic Community College.

Scates herself is an embodiment of how powerful this model can be. In just one year, with the help of the Family Economic Security Program, she went from academic probation to being one of Housatonic Community College’s highest-performing students, making the Dean’s List.

When she was inducted into the college’s Academic Honor Society in a candlelight ceremony, Scates knew it was a defining moment.

“That made me stop and say, ‘This is a milestone,” she remembers.

In the coming months, Scates is on track to graduate with an Associate’s degree. Building on her experience as a first responder, she plans to go on and complete a Bachelor’s degree in Public Safety through Charter Oak State College. Having watched disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina unfold across the country, she sees a need to help people in Bridgeport learn strategies for survival in similar situations.

“In my community, people may have no means to buy food on a regular basis, let alone buy extra for an emergency,” says Scates. “I want to be an advocate in my community, and inform people how to be prepared.”

She’s also finding other ways to inspire women and girls to reach for their dreams. That includes volunteering for Dress for Success, helping women who have been unemployed or domestically abused to find career clothing and prepare for job interviews.

“When life has really kicked them down, women sometimes give up,” says Scates. “I want to inspire them to keep reaching for their highest potential – to keep being fueled to move forward.”

And last spring, she stood up in front of hundreds of people at Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s annual Fund for Women & Girls luncheon to give her first motivational speech. Her seatmate at the luncheon was keynote speaker and international soccer star Abby Wambach, who was so impressed by Regina’s story that she shared words of encouragement.

“That moment gave me hope that there are so many more untapped moments inside me,” says Scates. “I’ll never forget it.”

Through the Family Economic Security Program, Scates hopes many other women will have the chance to experience this feeling and achieve their own dreams.

“There’s a great need for this program,” says Scates. “So many women have challenges. The Family Economic Security Program really helped me pull all the pieces together, and I believe it will plant seeds in our community.”

Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Fund for Women & Girls is on a mission to empower women and girls in Fairfield County to reach their full potential. Established in 1998 by a group of visionary women, the fund has helped thousands of women and girls to develop confidence, find their voices and achieve economic security. Support this mission by joining us on April 20th, 2017 for our annual Fund for Women & Girls Luncheon, benefitting the Family Economic Security Program and featuring inspirational keynote speaker Andrea Jung, trailblazing executive and woman’s issue supporter.