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Graduate!CT Helps College Dropouts Get Back To School

Finally, someone to tell you it'll all be OK

by Dan D’Ambrosio

August 24, 2010

Juliet Kapsis was 19 years old when she left her Bloomfield home for Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., a private liberal arts school founded in 1837 that hosted one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858.

“I was excited when I left for college,” says Kapsis. “I really enjoyed myself [at first] then halfway through something happened and I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t have the confidence to create the support network I needed.”

Kapsis transferred to Central Connecticut State University, where she lasted two years, studying history and sociology.

“I was at a point in my life when I didn’t know who I was or what my purpose was,” says Kapsis. “I wasn’t able to manage. I crashed. I was spending my time in the library, crying.”

Kapsis packed her bags and headed for Boston, where she spent the next 12 years working as a secretary. She was “living the life,” partying in Cambridge, but still, she didn’t feel fulfilled. She quit her job to be a home health coach.

“That wasn’t doing it either,” says Kapsis. “I began to ask ‘Is there something wrong with me?’”

Finally, at age 37, Kapsis moved back to her parents’ home in Bloomfield to regroup. That’s when she found Graduate!CT, a new program launched in April by the Metro Hartford Alliance and eight area schools that focuses on finding failed college students and getting them back in the classroom to finish their degrees. Graduate!CT offers seminars on pursuing financial aid, transferring credits, and paying off old college debt, as well as help in overcoming the less tangible obstacles to returning to school.

“Frankly, we help convince people they can do it,” says John Shemo, executive director of Graduate!CT. “In many cases, there’s an emotional issue around returning to college. People started and stopped for a variety of reasons.”

Kapsis saw a sign for a Graduate!CT seminar in the Prosser Public Library in Bloomfield and signed up.

“They call themselves your cheerleaders and that’s exactly what they are, offering up ideas,” says Kapsis.

Shemo, who is also vice president and director of economic development at Metro Hartford Alliance, launched the program after attending a national conference in Pittsburgh in 2008 where Graduate! Philadelphia, the first such program in the country, was being honored. Graduate!CT is second, says Shemo.

Launched in 2005, Graduate! Philadelphia targets more than 70,000 residents in that city, and 300,000 in the region, who have at least one year’s worth of college credits but no degree.

“Our reasoning is simple,” says the Graduate! Philadelphia website. “Increasing the number of individuals with college degrees returns significant economic and social benefits to the region, its residents and its businesses.”

The same goes for Greater Hartford, says Shemo, where Graduate!CT has registered 225 people since April.

“We have re-enrolled 10 adults already in college,” says Shemo. “There are about 150,000 adults in the Hartford region that either have some credits and no degree or an associate’s degree. These are all candidates for us to help pursue their bachelor’s degree.”

Glenn Cassis, executive director of the African-American Affairs Commission, is approaching the challenge of promoting higher education from the other end, launching several initiatives to get low-income middle-school students thinking about college. The four-year high-school graduation rate for black and Hispanic kids in Hartford and other urban areas hovers around 60 percent — never mind college, where, says Cassis, students would often be the first in their families to attend.

“Many first-generation students have no idea what it takes to go to college,” he says. “It’s outside their world.”

Cassis estimates 75 percent of these students have not gone to college and no one in their immediate family has gone to college.

Kapsis ended up re-enrolling in Manchester Community College, where she’s getting an associate’s degree in general studies. She has her eye on a bachelor’s degree and maybe even a master’s from Saint Joseph’s in business management.

“I’m investigating and researching and speaking to professors now,” she says. “I have the confidence to meet with people who graduated to find out what are they doing, how happy are they, how much money are they making.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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