Overcoming tough odds: Microcollege in Holyoke gives young women an educational boost

  • Samantha Jordon in a class at Bard Microcollege Holyoke on Wednesday. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Andrea Diaz takes notes during a class taught by Mary Anne Myers, the program Director with the Bard Micro College in Holyoke.

  • Mary Anne Myers, the program Director with the Bard Micro College in Holyoke.

  • Katherine Lynch, left, and Andrea Diaz take notes during a Bard Microcollege Holyoke class taught by Mary Anne Myers. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Wilma Rivera takes notes during a class taught by Mary Anne Myers, the program Director with the Bard Micro College in Holyoke.

  • Mary Anne Myers, the program director with Bard Microcollege Holyoke, teaches a class Wednesday morning. The microcollege, a new collaboration between Bard College and the Care Center in Holyoke, enables women to earn a free associate degree. Twenty-five students are currently enrolled in the program. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Andrea Diaz takes notes during a class taught by Mary Anne Myers, teh program Director with the Bard Micro College in Holyoke.

  • Mary Anne Myers, the program director with Bard Microcollege Holyoke, teaches a class Wednesday morning. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Students during a class taught by Mary Anne Myers, the program Director with the Bard Micro College in Holyoke.

  • Coralys Perez talks about her experience being a student in the Bard Micro College through the Care Center in Holyoke. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ann Teschner, the executive director of The Care Center in Holyoke talks about the Bard Micro College. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Coralys Perez talks about her experience being a student in the microcollege. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Coralys Perez talks about her experience being a student in the Bard Micro College through the Care Center in Holyoke. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

@amandadrane
Published: 2/24/2017 11:29:14 PM

HOLYOKE — Life marches onward in a zigzag, Bard College professor Mary Anne Myers told her students.

The women taking her class are all impoverished area residents, many of whom are young mothers with a history of academic struggle. The class is part of Bard’s first-ever microcollege, which enables the women to earn a free associate degree from Bard through the program at The Care Center in downtown Holyoke.

The notion of progress comes from 19th-century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel.

“We’re making progress — life is getting better — but it’s not in a straight line,” Myers said during a lecture earlier this month, recounting Hegel’s theory and delving into the text of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein.”

She used women’s suffrage as an example. Women won the right to vote, then World War II happened, men marched off to war and society pushed women back into the homemaker role.

“But women got a little bit further,” she told her students. “And it’s happening again. A woman ran for president. Now, we have people saying women shouldn’t study math and science because women’s brains are inferior.”

Underestimated

The 25 students in the new program, 83 percent of whom are Latina and all receiving social services, are no strangers to being underestimated.

“The amount of obstacles these women are facing everyday is kind of mind-boggling — these are students that pretty much everyone has written off. Poverty is pretty violent,” said Anne Teschner, longtime director of The Care Center, which provides an alternative education program for young mothers.

Coralys Perez, 23, of Holyoke, is an outspoken student in the program. Teschner and Myers were shocked to hear that high school teachers called her quiet and told her to sit in back of the classroom.

After she got pregnant her senior year, she said she felt pressured to drop out. She said everywhere she went to get her GED she was met with excuses. Now, she would like to become a medical assistant.

“I really like to help people and I want to make a difference,” Perez said.

Angelique Vera, 25, of Holyoke, said she’s been fighting back stereotypes since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in high school.

“It came with a really strong stigma,” she said. “People the day before who were convinced I could be president of the United States were suddenly encouraging me to attend vocational school.”

She said teachers told her she couldn’t survive in a professional setting.

“When I became pregnant that compounded the idea I had somehow diminished in intelligence and potential,” she said.

She was 16 when she got pregnant and dropped out of Holyoke High School. She said things looked pretty bleak, but then she found The Care Center. She said staff at the center told her that she couldn’t give up, that her children would see she’d given up and that would set an example.

“There were so many times I felt I would have been validated in giving up and looking for a trade program and accepting the stereotype — the stereotype that society at large has for young mothers,” she said. “It really says give up on your education and find a way to support your children. It was The Care Center that told me that’s not an option, that getting our education, our degrees, is supporting our children.”

Now, while her son goes to elementary school, Vera takes her 1-year-old daughter to school with her at The Care Center. After she finishes, she’d also like to go into the medical field.

She said the thing about families living in poverty is that parents are so busy working that children turn to children for guidance. She said that’s how the city’s teen pregnancy rate grew to such high rates.

“There must be many other students like myself who were intelligent and if only given the tools they needed to succeed, they could have been successful, and ultimately it’s detrimental to our society,” she said. “The Care Center is proof that if all students are treated equally — not the same, but if everybody gets exactly what they need then success is inevitable.”

Although Holyoke’s teen birth rates are on the decline, more young women ages 15 to 19 become mothers each year in the city than anywhere else in the state. The city’s birth rate of 39.8 per 1,000 women is nearly four times the statewide average, according to statistics compiled by the Massachusetts Alliance of Teen Pregnancy in 2014.

“Even though we knew it was a problem, seeing it on paper was like, we’ve got to do something,” said Teschner of the correlation between teen pregnancy and academic failure.

Microcollege goals

Founded 30 years ago, The Care Center launched Bard Microcollege Holyoke in August of last year. Teschner said it has long provided GED courses and certificates to young women who had dropped out of high school. She said she and her team began to realize that though the center was doing good work, something was missing.

“We found 75 percent of our grads go to college — this is good,” said Teschner, of Florence. “But only 15 percent were graduating. So we said, ‘OK, this is not the point.’”

Bard Microcollege Holyoke graduates earn an associate degree in liberal arts from Bard College. Teschner said the center has always focused on “taking things out of the way” so that young women can move forward with their lives. And that’s exactly what they do with the new program. The center covers partial tuition — the other part covered through Pell grants — transportation, childcare and food for its students.

“We see that these are really bright and capable young women,” Teschner said. “It’s fun to be part of the pathway to people becoming intellectually alive again.”

She said there were debates, at first, over whether the program should focus on liberal arts or something more vocational. In the end, she said, they decided a more literary and philosophical subject matter could serve to draw in students.

“The intellectual depth of the material really moves people into a different space,” she said. “People in poverty and people of means need the same things — exactly the same things.”

Once leaders at Bard College and at The Care Center knew they were onto something, they split the work. Bard would secure accreditation and employees at the center would line up funding. Teschner said there was no shortage of interest in helping fund the initiative.

“I was amazed at the interest,” she said. “I do think this taps into something far bigger than Holyoke.”

Max Kenner, director of the Bard Prison Initiative who oversees the microcollege, agrees. He said Bard plans to roll out more microcolleges in the coming years with the goal of engaging non-traditional students in everything the college has to offer.

“Those talented and curious people are out there and we as leaders of higher education bear the burden of finding them,” he said Wednesday.

Success building

He said the program builds upon the success of the college’s prison initiative and other Bard programs that offer low-cost education, high-quality education to chronically undervalued students. He said these programs make no compromises in rigor — 60 students applied for the first semester of courses at Bard Microcollege Holyoke and 25 were enrolled. Professors treat the students as they would any other.

“Students leave with no debt but they’re held to the absolute highest academic standards,” Kenner said. “We have a competitive admission process which is about identifying students that will make the most of this opportunity.”

Part of that selection process involves an in-depth writing sample and interview and is personalized to each applicant.

Kenner said the admissions process at academic institutions across the country is broken, and the work itself is flagging as leaders lower their expectations of students.

“If there’s anything that’s most astonishing about the state of higher education today, it’s the crisis of confidence among the leaders of our greatest universities who’ve come to believe the inaccurate arguments of their adversaries,” he said, referencing the conception that today’s young people don’t value their education and care only of social media and mobile phones. “And that’s incorrect.”

Myers, also director of the microcollege, said she loves teaching students in Holyoke for the same reason she loves teaching first-year college students anywhere else — it’s about “lighting the intellectual spark.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.


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