Learn to Dream scholarship creates opportunity

2014-02-03T01:00:00Z 2014-02-03T01:12:09Z Learn to Dream scholarship creates opportunityBy MARGARET REIST / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Izzy Iwanski went to Southeast Community College because of a Learn to Dream Scholarship.

She’s still there more than a year later because of Shelley Stoltenberg.

The 2012 Lincoln High school graduate was one of 461 students awarded the scholarship that year, the fifth year of a partnership between SCC, Union Bank and Nelnet to make college possible for low-income students.

And Iwanski is one of many students who struggled at first to keep going — a struggle she says she’s mastered with the help of Stoltenberg, a retention specialist at SCC whose job it is to help students maneuver through whatever obstacles might get in their way.

“She’s the best thing that’s happened to me at school,” Iwanski said.

The Learn to Dream Scholarship is designed to offer opportunity for post-secondary education to those who might not otherwise have it.

All students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch can get Learn to Dream Scholarships to pay for 45 credit hours — the equivalent of a year’s worth of classes. They have up to a year to enroll and two years to use the credits. The scholarship also can be used for a year during high school to earn dual credit.

Since 2008, SCC has awarded 2,856 scholarships, and 1,876 of those students, or 68 percent, have enrolled.

A much smaller number — 449, or 24 percent — have graduated or transferred to another institution. So far, 412 have completed the 45 hours.

College-wide at SCC, an average of 54 percent of first-time, first-year fulltime students earn a degree or transfer within four years.

But Robin Moore, SCC administrative director of institutional effectiveness and research, said that number reflects only about 20 percent of total enrollment. Many students transfer from other institutions or attend part time. 

Tracking Learn to Dream students poses similar challenges, she said, because of the time parameters of the scholarship.

And Learn to Dream recipients, especially those who are international students, often face challenges other students don’t, Stoltenberg said.

“I think it’s a great, great program,” she said. “There is just nothing for this population.”

Many students are working full time; some are single mothers. Others have language barriers or issues at home that distract them.

“It’s a population where a lot of them don’t have college experience,” Stoltenberg said. “Many, many, many of them are first-generation college students, and they don’t have the support system like kids whose parents went to college.”

Retention staff helps those who struggle academically sign up for the courses they need to catch up — although the number of students who need such courses has been decreasing in recent years.

Moore said that may be because students are coming from high school more prepared.

International students, in particular, benefit from the scholarship, Stoltenberg said. Many would never have considered college before. Some, who are undocumented or don't have permanent residency, struggle to find other scholarships.

Whatever challenges they face, Stoltenberg and other retention specialists try to help.

And she's seen it have dramatic results.

“I’m sort of surprised at the time we spend dealing with personal issues,” Stoltenberg said. “But if you can’t get those basic needs taken care of, you can’t possibly be successful in college.”

In high school, Iwanski had dreams of attending a graphic design school in Omaha but couldn’t afford it. She found out about the Learn to Dream Scholarship, decided to attend SCC instead and work toward an associate’s degree.

Had the scholarship not been available, she might not have gone to school at all — at least at first.

“I probably would have waited and tried for more scholarships,” she said, though finding those that were relevant to her was tough.

At SCC, things went well at first, Iwanski said. Then she began to slip.

She was working part time and, as one of five girls in her family, felt responsible for her younger siblings and often found herself being the peacemaker in the family. Then she had car troubles and had to take a bus across town to get to school.

“It affected my grades," she said. "I had no time to study, and I wouldn’t sleep well."

When she landed on academic probation, she talked to Stoltenberg, who helped her work out an arrangement where she could retain her scholarship if she took a seminar for Learn to Dream Scholarship recipients.

She did, and her grades went up.

The class helped a lot, Iwanski said, teaching her organizational skills and time management. She learned where she could find tutoring services and other resources.

Her personal life began to settle down, too, she said. She got engaged, then married, and her husband’s support — plus a quiet place to live where she could focus on school — made a difference.

“The support with (my husband), with Shelley and the school, it helped a lot,” she said.

The college has made some changes to better help Learn to Dream students including:

* Making a Learn to Dream seminar -- the one Iwanski took -- mandatory. In addition to teaching study skills and familiarizing students with campus resources, it helps students find additional financial aid.

* Creating an appeal process for students whose grade-point averages fall below 2.0. Before, they’d lose their scholarships. Now they can appeal and, if the appeal is accepted, keep the scholarship while they go on academic probation and bring their grades up.

* Adding two full-time retention specialists to the original two part-time staff members.

Moore said SCC has expanded the Learn to Dream program outside of Lincoln, working with communities to sponsor students. SCC will match those sponsorships for up to five years, with the hope community sponsors become self-supportive. The Lincoln scholarships are supported by Union Bank and Nelnet.

Both Moore and Stoltenberg say the scholarship program is important, and the numbers don’t always reflect its impact on students. Even those who don't get a degree right away learn what's possible.

 Iwanski is pregnant and will take a quarter off when she gives birth. Then she’ll be back to finish her degree.

“You plant the seed,” said Moore. “Sometimes you have to look at the long term and what the successes are down the road.”

​Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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