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MHCC 'Transitions' program helps women to chart a course

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Transitions students work together to set the ball on the mouth of the bottle.Fifteen women of all ages and appearances stand in a circle holding strings that came together in the middle like the spokes of a giant wheel. They are trying to lower a ball in the center of the spokes onto a small lightweight bottle without knocking the bottle over.

It takes many attempts, and tempers flare a few times. Finally, after multiple tries, the ball settles perfectly on the bottle, prompting a big cheer among the women and the small crowd around them.

This was the first team-building activity in the 11-week Transitions college-readiness program for women at Mt. Hood Community College. When the activity is repeated at the end of the 11 weeks, program Coordinator Stella Armstrong is confident about the outcome.

“I guarantee you ladies will get it on the first try,” she told the group.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Transitions coordinator Stella Armstrong cheers on students as they take part in a team-building exercise. Transitions is designed to help women struggling with continuing, beginning or planning their college educations. The participating students are often older and may be single moms, displaced homemakers, non-English speakers or women facing other challenges unique to typical college students.

Teri Lyn Judd is one of those women. The 46-year-old mother of three was battling substance abuse problems when she heard about Transitions from a roommate in her clean-and-sober living facility. She credits Transitions with helping her sort through her options and get on track for college and a career.

Judd, who graduated from Transitions in the spring of 2015, is now a mentor to other women in the program. “When I came into the program I was scared,” she said. “I am here to help them and guide them through the (Transitions) program.”

Judd, now 21-months sober, is enrolled in MHCC and aims to become an addictions counselor.

“I just want to give back what was given to me,” she said.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Transitions graduate Sadee Daniels, right, plans to get a four-year college degree in sociology. Women considering Transitions have to be ready to buckle down and work. If students are currently in crisis or have big challenges in their lives, such as addiction or homelessness, they may not be ready for the program. 

“It is not a good fit for everyone,” Armstrong said. “We are looking for someone with safe housing so they can study and get rest. They have to be ready.”

Improving self-esteem

Transitions, according to its mission statement, provides “a highly supportive environment that helps students develop career goals, get comfortable with the college and all its resources, make friends within a support network of professionals and peers, and develop life skills like time management and study strategies.”

The program definitely helped 44-year-old Shannon Smyth. Suffering with family issues that led to drug use, she heard about the program from an intern working at the homeless shelter where she lived. Smyth graduated from Transistions in the fall of 2014, took a year to focus on school, and is now back as a mentor for the program.

“It gives you all the support and encouragement you need to become a success as a college student and in life.” Smyth aims to become a youth counselor.

“Transitions is a family,” she said.

Students learn how to navigate financial aid and scholarships and how to learn career development skills. The program offers counseling and advising, support groups, and low-income students might get help with costs such as child care and transportation. 

The program is based on a set of three classes that meets Tuesdays and Thursdays for several hours for one three-month college term. Homework is assigned, and the classes carry tuition costs comparable to regular college courses. Nearly 800 women have graduated from the program in the past 10 years, said Armstrong, who was a university professor in her native Philippines and has a degree in educational management.

In addition to the class, Transitions offers speakers, field trips and mentoring by program graduates. The program boasts that 85 percent of its participants enroll in college after finishing the program. About half complete at least one year of college and get better jobs because of improved self-esteem and skills. 

Emotional regulation

The most important message Armstrong hopes to instill in the women is that “it is never too late to succeed,” she said. “There is always hope for the future.”

Sadee Daniels, 38 and a mother of four, came to enroll in college, and the admissions counselor walked her over to Transitions. She graduated from Transitions a few months ago, is enrolled at MHCC and plans to get a four-year degree in sociology. She hopes to become an event planner and would like to work organizing events for children through a parks department.

A DUII arrest made Daniels realize that her infrequent binge drinking was holding her back in life. Her most important takeaway from Transitions, she said, is “how to emotionally regulate myself to be more successful and not become overwhelmed. If I hadn’t gone through Transitions, I guarantee you I would still be sitting at home wondering what I’d do with my life.”

One of Daniels’ favorite Transitions team-building activities involved constructing a bridge out of candy and sweets.

“We had to work together to make a functioning bridge,” she said. “The bridges were all very different. Some were big, some tiny. But they all held together and worked.”

Just, it seems, like the women in Transitions.