At 19, Mary Maraventano was a pre-med sophomore at Broward Community College, working two jobs and living at home to help make ends meet.
It wasn’t easy to balance work and school, but Mary managed. She was a hard worker with a good head for science, and she knew she was on the right path.
Then she received a letter from Broward Community College saying her financial aid was slashed. Without that support, there was no way she could continue to take classes. She had to drop out.
Putting Her Dreams Aside
Mary remembers mustering the courage to tell her mother. “It was her dream to see me graduate from college, and she was very, very upset.” Mary sighs. “She had fought her way as a single working mother in the 60s. She wanted more for me. I told her I wasn’t giving up on my dream. I’d go back later.”
But that dream floated further away over the next three decades as Mary was pulled into an endless stream of low-wage jobs. She married, had two children, then found herself divorced and raising her kids on her own. “I was barely able to make enough money to support us,” she remembers. “It was tough.”
Mary still longed to finish her degree. “But I knew I had to put my children first,” she says. “I had to put my hopes and dreams aside.”
When her son was accepted at the University of Illinois, Mary didn’t have enough money to help him cover tuition. “I wrote to the university, telling them about our situation and asking if there was anything they could think of that might help,” she remembers. “And they told me about the Monetary Award Program. That’s what made the difference. The MAP grant is what helped him complete college.”
The MAP grant was THE reason Mary and her son were able to complete college. In a very challenging budget year, WE advocated for and won a $2 million increase in tuition assistance in Illinois—an increase that was maintained for FY2015. WE's Student Advocates for Success organized students across Illinois who signed petitions, rallied, and urged their legislators to avoid cuts in critically needed financial aid.
While her son went to school, Mary worked her way up from barista to manager at Starbucks. Every day, after the final customer left, she would loosen her bright green apron, her heels aching; back pain, exhaustion, and stress were a daily part of life. “I became physically ill from the long hours and being on my feet all the time,” Mary remembers.
"Something Has to Change."
One night, when she came home and sank into the couch to ease her aching back, she told herself, “Something has to change.”
Mary thought about her mom, who had died recently. Mary knew what she would say if she were here: go back to school.
Her plan made sense. A degree is valuable in today’s world. Women who get postsecondary education or training are much more likely to find better-paying jobs and good opportunities.
Mary knew what her career goal was when she entered college. But many low-paid working adults need effective programs to enable them to choose a career path and get ready academically. WE made exciting progress in our partnership with City Colleges of Chicago to transform adult basic education and English as a Second Language instruction into a pathway to college success. WE and City Colleges developed curricula for "bridge" programs in health care, transportation, and hospitality that enable students to progress to college credit courses leading to good jobs or further education. Retention rates in these programs are dramatically higher than in traditional adult education programs. Over 80 percent complete the program.
Remembering that MAP had been the key to funding her son’s education, Mary applied for and received a MAP grant for herself. Almost 30 years after leaving college, with financial aid paving the way, Mary was finally able to return.
“It was like jumping off a cliff,” she says with a laugh.
She was luckier than many adult students—she didn’t need to find childcare for her kids, she already had two years’ worth of college credits, and she knew she wanted to go into healthcare. Many working students aren’t so well-prepared, which is why Women Employed advocates for support programs that help students get career guidance, find affordable childcare, and bolster their academic skills before starting college.
Mary dove right in, taking as many classes as she could during her first semester at Loyola University.
But it wasn’t easy. During class, she sat amid a sea of young students and laptops. Mary opened her spiral-bound notebook, picked up her pencil, and found that her arthritis made it painful to scrawl out notes during lectures.
When Mary slid into her seat to take her first test, she began to hyperventilate. She realized she was having a full-blown panic attack. “I never had problems when I was younger,” she says, “but when I went back I worried so much about finishing my tests on time that it triggered these attacks.”
Mary's Work Pays Off
With lots of support from Loyola professors and counselors, and two years of unrelenting work, Mary completed all the requirements for her Bachelor’s degree in psychology. On graduation morning, she brushed out her long auburn hair, applied her lipstick and mascara, and placed a mortarboard atop her head. Then she opened her dresser drawer and took out a pin with a small photo of her mother. She clipped it to the folds of her gown. When she walked across the stage to receive her diploma, her mother walked with her.
“I wanted her there with me,” she remembers. “To see that I achieved our dream.”
For Mary, finishing college was the difference between being stuck in 30 years of low-wage jobs and getting a satisfying career with good wages. That's why WE is a partner in Complete the Degree, a collaboration with two other adult student-focused organizations that is providing high-level advising to enable adults in Chicago to overcome barriers and return to college.
Mary went on to earn her M.S. in Clinical Counseling Psychology, and today she has a job that inspires her. She does cognitive rehab with low-income seniors in supportive living communities. “It’s enriching,” she says. “I get to help people, to give back.” Talking about it, she gets teary-eyed.
“I was lucky. I got a second chance,” she says.
Her main message is that no one should be denied an education if they have the desire to get one. “Nobody should be turned away because they can’t pay. Look at me, at my son—the MAP grant provided the opportunity for an education, and then we had the tools to succeed.”