Kathie Norfleet’s life was going nowhere.
A high school dropout, she used drugs and alcohol, married young, and was abused. By the time the 1980s rolled around, she had no diploma, no degree–nothing to show for her life. Even after getting her GED and an associate’s degree, she lacked direction and purpose.
But that was before she enrolled in the Student Outreach and Academic Resources Program.
Now, bachelor’s degree in hand, Norfleet works for the City of Dearborn, and is pursuing her Masters in Public Administration with aspirations to work in human resources.
She credits SOAR with much of her success.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned a lot, and I didn’t know what I was going for except that I wanted to be someone different than who I was,” Norfleet said at a recent workshop hosted by SOAR. “I can think and I have opinions and I can express those opinions. It took a lot of work to get here.”
SOAR Takes Off
In the late ‘90s, a program began at UM-Dearborn aimed at changing the lives of metro Detroit women. Its goal, developed by professors at the college, was simple: to help nontraditional students to obtain degrees against the odds.
“The opportunities I’ve had (at UM-Dearborn) are things I never dreamed I would do. You start to look at everything differently and realize you have power.”
The SOAR program has since opened its scope to include men, and focuses on either those who are over age 25, and/or those who are parents or returning from military service. Though students of any age are always able to enroll at a college, SOAR provides the tools to help them succeed.
“Specific to the SOAR program, we work with students who have had obstacles in their life,” explained director Ellen Judge-Gonzales. “What we provide is academic support, personal support and financial support.”
Around 20 students are accepted into the SOAR program each year, making for a small group of no more than 60-70 students at a time. Many are referred through local human service agencies, such as First Step, ACCESS, and Michigan Works. Participants cannot have previously obtained a college degree.
In addition to support staff and guidance, SOAR participants receive the most important kind of help: monetary. All SOAR participants receive tuition assistance in their first year, as well as free textbooks. Depending on their need, some students pay nothing at all during their first year at UM-Dearborn.
But the financial break is only one year, so “we also provide personal support,” Judge-Gonzales said. That includes a course on renewing education, which addresses the challenges returning students face–such as money, time commitment, family obligations, or just fear and doubt in themselves to succeed.
“We create a community of adult learners and we have a space where they can hang out and chat … so students connect with one another and they feel a sense of belonging at the university,” Judge-Gonzales said. “I think the biggest reason it works is that it’s a one-stop shopping place for an adult learner.”
But more than anything, SOAR–whose mission is greatly supported by UM-Dearborn–is about encouraging those who say they can’t to try.
“People tell me, ‘I don’t think I can do it for this reason or that,’” said College of Arts, Science and Letters Dean Jerold Hale. “What I tell them is, ‘You can’t afford not to.’”
Changing Lives–and Communities
SOAR has a statistic enviable to those looking to revitalize Michigan: 100 percent of the program’s graduates still live and work in state.
According to Judge-Gonzales, it’s a cornerstone of SOAR’s goals.
“Part of our mission statement is that we’re trying to live out the metropolitan vision,” Judge-Gonzales said. “So what better opportunity than by really reaching out in our own community and trying to assist people we know are going to graduate and stay in southeast Michigan.”
And the contributions continue to generations to come.
“When the adults become educated then, of course, it passes down to kids,” said Judge-Gonzales. “You’re impacting communities when you provide this opportunity.”
But for Norfleet, the biggest gains were internal.
“The opportunities I’ve had (at UM-Dearborn) are things I never dreamed I would do,” she said. “You start to look at everything differently and realize you have power.”
Learn more about the SOAR program at www.casl.umd.umich.edu/soar.