EMCC Pilot Program Garnering National Attention

MAYHEW, Miss. (PRESS RELEASE) – West Point resident Amanda Chandler, 46, often thought about earning a college degree but life seemed to get in the way.

“I had convinced myself I was too old to go back to school,” Chandler said.

Tired of not having the job she wanted, Chandler decided she would try. Last year, she enrolled in courses at East Mississippi Community College.

Chandler was not confident she would succeed. Her foray into college was accompanied by fear she would become “overwhelmed by it all” and drop out.

That didn’t happen.

In her second year, Chandler boasts a 4.0 GPA and is planning to attend either Mississippi State University or Mississippi University for Women once she graduates from EMCC.

Chandler credits the Empowering Mentors to Promote Women’s Retention (EMPOWR) program with helping her stay in school.

In the program, nontraditional-aged female sophomore students serve as mentors to their freshmen counterparts.

Columbus resident Melissa Howell, 49, was tapped as Chandler’s mentor.

Howell tried on several occasions to earn a college degree but suffered a series of tragedies that derailed her attempts, including the death of her husband while her two children were young and a protracted battle with cancer from which she emerged victorious.

In 2014, Howell enrolled at EMCC and is now close to graduating.

Like Chandler, Howell had fears about returning to college.

“I felt like I was too old. I would not be able to do it. That the college age kids would not accept me, and that I may fail yet again,” she said.

Howell gave Chandler insight on how to juggle family, school and homework.

Most of all, Chandler said, Howell lent moral support.

“It helped me a lot to know I could either message her on Facebook or pick up the phone and call her. It didn’t matter if it was 10 at night,” Chandler said. “We became fast friends.”

In its second year, EMPOWR is a pilot program that came about after the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi in 2013 commissioned researchers at Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center (SSRC) to investigate the needs of female community college students.

Researchers conducted focus groups at six of the 15 community college campuses in the state.

“Over and over, we heard from nontraditional women who said how hard it is for them to attend school while struggling with family and economic issues,” SSRC researcher and EMPOWR Project Director Anne Buffington said. “They felt like they didn’t have a voice.”

According a July 2015 report by the SSRC, 44 percent of women attending community college in Mississippi are employed, 31 percent have children and many face multiple demands and a sense of isolation.

Last school year, the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi, a Jackson-based nonprofit group dedicated to funding programs that improve the lives of women and girls statewide, awarded the SSRC a $50,000 grant to implement the EMPOWR program at EMCC’s Golden Triangle campus.

The goal of the program is to take steps to retain nontraditional women students 22 years of age and older who are at most risk of dropping out.

Participants were identified by EMCC staff using data collected through the DropGuard Early Alert System that tracks absences and low test grades.

Ten students were recruited for the program in 2014 and paired with 10 sophomores who agreed to participate.

EMCC Student Success Coordinator Laura Damm spearheads recruiting efforts for the program.

“The feedback from the participants has all been positive,” Damm said. “They love hearing others are in the same situation, that they are not alone in the issues that stress them out.”

This school year, the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi awarded a second grant of $40,000 for the program and the number of recruits was expanded.

“Of the thirteen mentees we had in the fall of 2015, six came in with GPAs from previous institutions,” Damm said. “All six improved their GPAs. Also, of those 13 mentees, three made the Dean’s List and three made the President’s List.”

Participants are required to meet with their mentors at least one hour per week.

In addition, mentors and mentees attend monthly meetings at EMCC’s Mayhew campus that include guest speakers who address topics such as stress and time management, managing health and wellness, financial management and career counseling, Buffington said.

During the informal meetings at the Lions’ Brew on the Mayhew campus, attendees offer feedback and suggestions that are passed along to the college’s administration.

“They are really more like interactive sessions,” Buffington said.

“They have turned out to be the real jewel of the program.”

The pilot program at EMCC is starting to get noticed outside of the state.

Buffington and fellow SSRC researcher Heather Hanna gave a presentation on the program last October at the New Perspectives in Mentoring Conference hosted by the University of New Mexico’s Mentoring Institute in Albuquerque.

About 800 people from across the country attended the conference. The presentation was well received, Buffington said.

“In fact, we were approached by a professor at a San Francisco area community college who expressed interest in developing a similar program there,” Buffington said.

Both Buffington and Women’s Foundation of Mississippi Program Officer Latisha Latiker hope to see the program picked up by other community colleges in Mississippi.

“There is a need on all 15 colleges in the state,” Latiker said. “The problems at EMCC are not singular to them. If other states adopt our model that would be an added bonus.”

Buffington agreed.

“I would love to see if we could start one in Meridian,” Buffington said. “I just so believe in this program. I know it works. I would really like to see EMPOWR replicated at other community college campuses.”

Chandler is a fan. This year she is serving as a mentor.

“The EMPOWR program helped me realize I could do this and that there are people out there who care if nontraditional students make it,” Chandler said.

Howell agrees.

I believe very strongly in the EMPOWR program,” Howell said. “If it can be installed in every community college, it will change lives.”


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