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No Catches, No Losers, No Money

April 8, 2006

There had to be a catch; just had to be.

Why would a Charter Oak College staffer pitch single mother Cecilia Peppers-Johnson four years ago about the possibility of getting a free college education, laptop computer and Internet access - all while studying from the comfort of home.

"I was like `What do I really have to do?'" Peppers-Johnson chuckled, sitting at a lunch spot below the downtown Hartford office of her employer - the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "And after my first class, I was like, `OK, I know they're going to send me a bill...' But it never came."

Peppers-Johnson's bachelor's degree from Charter Oak in Individual Studies is paid in full. Now, she's two credits short of a master's degree in organizational communication from Eastern Connecticut State University, taking the conventional route this time and even paying most of the cost as she sits in college classes.

In 2000, the Air Force veteran and National Guard sergeant was 30, single and living with son Marcquille, then 6 and often sick. The Hartford native had earned two associate degrees but with a sick kid and a demanding schedule she didn't have the time or the money to go after higher learning.

The Women in Transit program, the vision of Charter Oak President Merle Harris, identifies underemployed single moms and removes the concerns about child care and transportation from their thoughts about getting back into school. Eighty percent of the 98 students are African American and Latino, many on state assistance. So far, about 40 percent of the mothers have earned degrees - associate, bachelor's or both.

This non-traditional approach to establishing a productive life for women often locked out of the mainstream is working. Naturally, there are money problems. Every novel educational effort geared to urban dwellers suffers the same fate. Dwindling federal cash makes up the bulk of the $300,000 budget - the state is putting up a paltry $40,000. The program is believed to be the only one of its kind in Connecticut. But finding funding sources past 2007 remains iffy.

You hear folks pontificate about so-called "welfare moms" and how they're sucking up public dollars and continuing a cycle of dependency. So a PhD-type like Harris comes up with a solution: She gets the women so re-engaged in academia that their children are taking notice.

"A lot of the women in the program are first-generation college students," Harris said. "They're setting a tone that this is now the expectation, and what was once the norm for their family will never be the norm again."

The one memory Peppers-Johnson has of her 2001 graduation is the reaction of Marcquille, now a promising actor who had a key role in the recent Hartford Stage running of "A Raisin in the Sun."

"I heard my son screaming when I graduated," she said. "And the next day his teacher called me to say Marcquille said `My mommy graduated from college. And I'm going to go to college too.' " Ana Rivera, 45, grew up in Puerto Rico and struggled with English as her second language. The mother of two, though, is closing in on her bachelor's in social sciences. She wants to be a social worker and set an example for her adult children.

The Women in Transit program is transforming lives in a big way. But there is the catch:

It's running out of money

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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