Editor’s note: In this monthly series, the authors introduce you to people who are apt to be your neighbors, are struggling to make ends meet and have been affected by specific state policies. To share your story, write to Sandy.Butler@umit.maine.edu or call 581-2382.
One-third of American women are living at or near the brink of poverty, often working low-income jobs and raising their children, according to a recent Shriver Report.
It underscores the well-established fact that higher education is essential to lifting women out of poverty. But access to education is often difficult.
Last month we told you Kaloe “Kay” Haslam’s story of returning to school with assistance from the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program. This month we introduce Liz, who also faced many obstacles in her journey to secure a post-secondary education, succeeding with the support of state and federal programs.
Elizabeth “Liz” Franck is a graduate student at the University of Maine. Her educational journey has been one of stops and starts and a few wrong turns, nothing easy.
Liz grew up in a working-class family. While she was a good student, college was not the norm in her family; no one had gone.
She knew her family was supportive of her attending college, recalling, “I was supposed to do something to contribute to society.” But her parents weren’t able to help. “Nobody knew anything about it. There were no university visits. There was nobody with me. I was completely on my own to figure this out.”
Liz enrolled at a local community college after high school but found it overwhelming. Professors liked her, and she did well enough, but “there are aspects to changing your social class that are complicated, very difficult.”
She was in and out a few times until she became ineligible for financial aid and gave up.
Upon moving to Portland, she picked up restaurant jobs, but no matter how hard she worked, she couldn’t make enough to make ends meet. She decided to return to school to get a degree that would open doors to higher-paying employment.
Liz was accepted to the University of Southern Maine and received some financial aid. She loved school and was not viewed as someone who needed supports.
“Well, it was a disaster. I got through the first semester — great grades. But by the second semester, things just started to come undone. I was taking care of my [step]son. There was no one to talk about the process with. And we were low-income, very low-income. It was hard, and by the end of the second semester, I was gone again.”
She moved to the Bangor area with her current husband and had a daughter. She worked as a waitress, bemoaning both the low wages and the physical demands of the job.
“How am I going to keep doing this work? When I was 22, I made $8 an hour. When I moved to the state of Maine in 1995, I made $8 an hour. When I moved to the Bangor area in 2003 and got a part-time job working at the Lucerne Inn, I made $8 an hour.”
When her husband returned to school to advance his career opportunities in information technology, they lived on student loans and her work. Over time, they built up unsustainable debt.
It became clear that the best way for Liz to access higher education was through the state Parents as Scholars program, which they were eligible for due to their low income.
Liz applied to the University of Maine at Augusta, Bangor campus, because “it was a school that was full of people like me. They were coming from low income; they had kids, maybe having tried going to school before, maybe never going before. I went there because it was for me.”
The student financial aid program, Parents as Scholars, helped her with the cost of books, child care expenses and mileage reimbursement for her drive from her home in Dedham — a one-room, “somewhat winterized” family camp.
She was grateful for this help: “Once I got started with classes, there is no way I could have done it without the child care. The pieces that came in [from the program] were very, very helpful, especially the mileage; that was huge. I mean, how can you go to college if you can’t get there?”
What ultimately allowed Liz to be successful in this third attempt was help from PaS and the federal TRIO program, Cornerstone. When Liz needed support, the program director stepped up to lend a hand and help her develop a community with other students.
Liz reflected on the importance of this. “There were multiple times when I thought I was going to lose my mind, because of life stressors or financial stressors and trying to raise a kid and go to school. If it weren’t for her support, I don’t think I could have gotten through it,” she said.
Liz completed her degree in liberal studies in May 2012 and began graduate work in social work the following fall. While she no longer receives help from PaS, as a graduate assistant she gets tuition support and a stipend. She expects to graduate in May 2016.
When asked about her aspirations for her daughter, Liz said she hoped she would pursue an education, something she believes is life-changing.
“It was meaningful to me in ways that have nothing to do with how much you can earn. I felt like my undergraduate degree freed me. It meant my voice mattered, that I count, I’m here; I’m in the game.” Liz thinks her daughter will go to college.
“She was just about to turn 4 years old when I went back to school, so she has been with me through this journey. We talk about my experience and how I hope she will go to school — and that she should go while she’s young because it’s really hard to do when you have kids.”
Liz is grateful for the Parents as Scholars and Cornerstone programs. They allowed her to complete her undergraduate degree and pursue an advanced degree — something she would never have imagined for herself, even five years ago.
“I was just grateful that the state of Maine had anything like that at all. PaS is something for Mainers to be proud of. We are setting a trend in the right direction for other people to follow,” she said.
She closed with a message for Gov. Paul LePage: “I hope Mr. LePage is listening. If he is, I would suggest to him, before he makes any cutbacks on programs that help Maine people obtain an education, change their potential really — that he go walk the Bangor campus of UMA and meet some of the people that rely on these programs. He’d probably find they’re not so different from himself.”
We know from people who have been cut off the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program due to newly imposed time limits — a law LePage considers a great success — that many women are without the education they need to obtain any job, much less a job paying enough to support their families.
Steering more women on TANF into Parents as Scholars would assure these individuals get the education they need to be competitive in today’s job market and contributing members of society.
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.