In Peril: College’s Effort to Aid Women

Vera Davis has more self-confidence, hope and determination than ever before. At least that’s what the single mother hears from friends and family members.

"They say they’ve seen a major change in me," said Davis, 54, of Arlington Heights, who credits her experience at Harper College with steering her out of dead-end jobs and toward an associate’s degree in business management.

Essential support came from a college program that provides tuition assistance and other help to low-income women who have gone through divorce, single parenthood or unemployment. Many participants have been victims of domestic abuse.

In existence nearly 40 years, the program is now financially threatened, officials say. Last fall, the state eliminated support for such initiatives at 10 community colleges, including nearly $60,000 a year that had been the primary funding of the Harper women’s program. A $500,000 donation from John Canning, chairman of investment firm Madison Dearborn Partners, and his wife, Rita, kept it afloat, but Harper officials say more money is needed for it to survive.

"It’s been a beacon of hope for so many people," Rita Canning said of the Harper program. "We need to keep it alive and strong."

On Friday, the college will host a fundraising breakfast to try to raise $100,000 for what is now called the John and Rita Canning Women’s Program. The keynote speaker will be Cook County State’s Atty. Anita Alvarez, who has said that combating domestic violence is a top priority.

The assistance is more than financial, and participants speak of gains that go beyond degrees and certificates—of earning self-sufficiency and self-respect.

The more than 300 women served each year receive tuition assistance, career counseling and emotional support.

The aim wasn’t specifically to target victims of domestic violence, but surveys found that most participants were in that category, said Susan McNamara, one of the counselors.

"We ask, ‘Have you experienced physical, emotional or verbal abuse?’ " McNamara said. "And we kept hearing, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ "

With that in mind, the focus was expanded to better address the needs of abuse victims. Staff receive 40 hours of domestic violence training.

During orientation, the students swap stories about past struggles and learn how to draw on inspirational writings. A two-credit course called Life Choices and Career Direction helps them plan for their education and redefine goals.

"We want them to find a life pathway," McNamara said.

Janet Lane, 50, of Schaumburg is grateful for the help. After two failed marriages and a string of low-paying jobs, including stints in retail and telemarketing, the single mother is now working toward a certificate in medical assistance and an associate’s degree in applied science.

Her goal is a job managing a doctor’s office or other medical facility.

"I didn’t think I could do it, but now I’m getting all A’s and B’s," Lane said. "I don’t think I could have done it without the women’s program. I’m so proud of myself."

Davis has reason to be proud as well. Almost 2½ years after enrolling, she received an associate’s degree in December.

A Chicago native, she married shortly after high school but divorced years later.

Davis took some college classes, but as a single mother with a son and a daughter to raise, she said she never believed she had the time or money to finish. Instead, she found herself working one menial office assistant job after another.

Then, in the summer of 2006, her sister passed along an advertisement for the women’s program at Harper. After one session with a counselor—and the promise of financial help—Davis decided to pursue an associate’s degree.

It was hard, especially the courses on economics and business law, and her finances remained strained. She relied on unemployment insurance and food stamps.

But Davis said she was thrilled to be back in the classroom and have a new sense of purpose. Counselors continued to provide essential support. And classmates with similar backgrounds became close friends.

After receiving her associate’s degree, graduating with a 3.5 grade-point average, Davis enrolled in National-Louis University. Her goal is to get a bachelor’s degree and land a job as an office manager.

"All of this has been like a breath of fresh air, focusing on something constructive, something that is going to lead to a better future," Davis said.

The fundraising breakfast will be from 8 to 9:30 a.m. Friday in the Wojcik Conference Center on Harper’s main campus in Palatine.

(Chicago Tribune)

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It’s nice to see financial assistance at work helping women to get another chance to improve their lives after trying times.