“When they go low, we go high.” Taking the High Road to Higher Education
When speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke as a woman, as a mother, as the First Lady, and as a wife. In her speech, the First Lady spoke of the importance of character, convictions, decency, and grace. Ultimately, these qualities of selflessness are crucial, yet often overlooked, in today’s leaders.
Jeannette Rankin Women's Scholarship Fund's Executive Director, Karen Sterk, asserts that,
“As supporters of women’s education and empowerment, we are excited to be witnessing this historic moment in our country’s history. Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress 100 years ago this November, running on the Republican ticket. One hundred years later, the Democrat nominee for President is a woman. While we are a non-partisan organization, we applaud women getting involved in public service and we see the parallels between the work they do and the work of our scholars."
Each day at the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund (JRF), we are inspired by the selflessness of our scholars. Many have children and are struggling to make ends meet from paycheck to paycheck. Still, they rise each morning more dedicated than before to earn an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree. JRF Scholars don’t stop because they understand their achievements are for the bettering of themselves, their family, their community, and this nation.
A significant number of our scholars are also single parents, so when they decide to make a temporary sacrifice to complete their degree, they take on a deliberate risk to better their children’s futures. Like leaders in today’s political movement, JRF Scholars have decided to redefine limited historic definitions of what success looks like in America.
When we talk to our single-parent scholars, they talk about their journey through the lens of their children. They proudly describe how they sit and do homework together at the table. Some women were once homeless, yet they always made sure their children were in school each day for a meal and for an education. Some women find energy in helping other women in their communities obtain their GEDs so that they too can go to college. Others laugh as they reflect on their sleepless nights or how many times they had to start over. They keep going.
Often, our JRF Scholars enter our sisterhood of scholarship and support after hitting some sort of breaking point. During Obama’s DNC speech this week, she shared that her motto to her daughters in the face of adversity is, “when they go low, we go high.” In response to low points, JRF Scholars have taken the high road to higher education. By taking the high road, they decide to believe in themselves despite any public or private criticisms of who they should be or what they should be limited to achieve.
For the children of our scholars, their mothers are their champions and, in turn, the children are also their mothers’ champions. When we ask women how they seek joy in the midst of being a non-traditional student and parent, they usually say it’s their children who keep them laughing and remembering why they are doing it. In turn, the women are refueled with energy to complete their Associate’s or their Bachelor’s degree for access to better resources and to be bigger champions for their children’s success.
Together JRF Scholars and their children have forged ways to achieve personal, professional, and academic goals. When children participate in this intentional work, they are being groomed to break cycles of poverty through education. One of our dedicated volunteers is barely 10 years old. She gives of her time because she already has a growing appreciation of women’s education.
Every day we all have the opportunity to shape the future of America’s children. For 40 years JRF has been empowering women through education, providing them scholarships to help them complete their degrees to not just make a living but to make a life.
Click here to empower champions through the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund.
For 30 years, I ran from myself. Now, I’m graduating from college!
"Hitting me with a truck.
Chaining me to a stove.
Pouring boiling hot water on me.
Being sold and re-sold.”
Allie has overcome a lot of trauma. She now has a 4.0 GPA and is graduating with her Associate’s Degree in English in December 2016. She plans to transfer into a B.A. program at the University of Houston. In the midst of her traumatic childhood experiences, she still graduated from high school at the age of 17. She even went straight to college afterward, but she went through over 30 years of destruction before she was ready to return.
As she is stepping into a new space, we asked her to dig deeper into a darker side of herself that she has done a lot of work to heal from. Personal healing can sometimes comes in the form of sharing our stories.
Today, in addition to being a student, Allie works with different community organizations in Houston to bridge gaps between healthcare and criminal justice professionals, two entities that interact most often with abused women.
Click play on the YouTube video below to listen to Allie’s story, recorded by 3rdMilClassroom. Keep reading to see what she shared with the us as a Jeannette Rankin Scholar.
At the age of 3, Allie was raped by her grandfather for the first time.
Allie endured this traumatic abuse until she was 11 years old when he passed away.
Soon after, she decided she had had enough and decided to run away. To survive, she ran into the arms of “boyfriends” who were 20-30 years old and offered her food, shelter, clothing, and drugs in exchange for sexual favors.
Allie soon started getting into human trafficking. For a long time, she didn’t even acknowledge that what she was doing was called human trafficking and prostitution.
Allie goes back and forth through unstable spaces for years, desperately looking for “a high or experience to cope with issues [she] didn’t want to deal with.”
In her early teens, she started experiencing flashbacks from her past and that’s when her family realized that something was extremely wrong. Drugs helped temporarily suppress the anxiety of the flashbacks.
“I was scared of my own voice.”
You could say she has a bit of a Breaking Bad story because she started making meth by stealing from her school’s chemistry lab. Her successful drug operation led her to develop a heroin addiction. “Addiction turned the fear [of my own experiences] into hate. At that point, everything I was cooking, I was using.”
Allie shared that what most people don’t understand is drugs, sexual abuse, prostitution, human trafficking are all related forms of power and self-destruction.
When she moved to South Central L.A., her body became a part of a local gang’s initiation process. The initiates were forced to kidnap Allie, rob her, and take turns having their fun with her. Her trafficker coincidentally always showed up to save her after these events.
Even when her trafficker stabbed her, this still wasn’t her wake up call because she had fallen in love with him and he made her feel less broken. Amidst the beatings and mistreatment, there was a twisted form of affection and acknowledgment that she feigned for from him.
After going to jail for an eighth felony, Allie decided she was ready to do the work to heal from her past and to save herself.
“For the first time, I was forced to surrender to my reality.”
In 2014, Allie enrolled in a vocational school in Houston after being denied admission to countless programs because of her paper trail of mistakes and felonies.
For so long, she was really just trying to make it, especially with her former trafficker of 8.5 years. If she ever came home empty-handed, he always greeted her with a beating.
“In order to survive emotionally, I created someone else who was able to deal with those stressors."
When do you find space for education in the midst of fighting for daily life?
An oppressor’s strongest biggest weapon is to deny one access to education, to deny one the opportunity of being empowered and educated. An educated woman is dangerous because she is able to rewrite and re-shape her narrative. An education equips women with more resources to be self-sufficient and to better serve her community.
"At first, I didn’t want to dream big because it required sacrifices to be made.”
Allie has been clean for three years and has used her resourceful nature to seek financial aid for her education. We are beyond proud to have her as one of our Jeannette Rankin Scholars.
She facilitates focus groups with imprisoned women who’ve endured child exploitation by using storytelling and art as coping mechanisms.
When she isn’t studying or serving in the community, she loves to spend time with her grandmother and belove dog.
Pictured on right is Allie's grandmother and her beloved dog. Pictured on left is an original piece created by Allie.
“My grandmother has seen me with black eyes and with my pimps and she still loves me unconditionally. She’s my rock.”
Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Give Up on YOU
As he lay naked basking in his adulterous act, he did say one last thing…
"I'm done with you."
She told him, "You might be. But I'm not done with me yet."
“Kristine, what was it that made you decide to go back to school?”
“Well… seven years ago, I came home and found my husband of 23 years in bed with another woman, his high school sweetheart.”
Thanks to Facebook, they had reconnected and apparently rekindled old flames. Despite being caught in the act, his face was absent of any guilt. He wiped their bank accounts clean and purchased one-way plane tickets for Kristine and their two children to return to her parents’ home in New York.
He doesn’t get a name in this story though because this isn’t his story.
This is the story of an artist and a survivor.
“I restarted my life with $900, two months of back rent, and two children.”
With the help of the HOPE Family Services, Kristine's divorce was finalized within three months. Kristine will complete her B.A. in Secondary Education in December 2016 and she will be the first person in her family to earn a Bachelors Degree.
Here's a snapshot on Kristine:
Mother, Teacher, Daughter, Sister, Lover, Painter
Currently works part-time at Publix and a local art gallery
Her living room doubles as her studio
Wants to purchase a car and travel the world with her son and daughter
As a teacher, Kristine wants to expose children to the intersection of art, English, and math. What if schools taught children about the Golden Ratio through the portrait of Mona Lisa?
She plans to turn her future classroom into an art gallery, walls filled with custom paintings. Many American children never have the opportunity to visit a museum, so Kristine wants to bring a museum to them. Pictured to the right is one of Kristine's interpretations of Tiger Lily.
In her free time, Kristine paints portraits of important women in her life based on their posted selfies on social media. According to Kristine, when we select selfies as our profile pictures, we choose ones that highlight some attribute of ourselves that we love, much below the physical surface. Painting their portraits gives her a chance to escape reality and add color to their inner and outer beauty.
Lessons Learned from Kristine:
If you can’t afford something, volunteer your time and talents. In order to pay for her daughter’s high school marching band fees, Kristine altered the band uniforms for over 160 students.
Be weary of the single narrative. Her children once complained of having to read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God because it seemed like the protagonist, Janie, was just a woman who ran from man to man. She corrected them, acclaiming that Janie is actually the heroine. Janie broke all of the stereotypes, did what she really wanted to do, and she spread her love along the way.
And when you’re really at your worst, go to the beach. Period. It’s that simple.
Don’t ever give any credit to someone else’s opinion of you.
Kristine's Norwegian father, Jan, pronounced John, came to the US at the age of 11. From day one, American teachers and students constantly teased him about his seemingly feminine name. One day, he’d had enough and requested an official change of spelling,“please change my name and make me American.”
Kristine, named after her father’s hometown, made it a point to return to her maiden name after her divorce. Looking back, the tumultuous marriage led her to reclaim her name, her identity, and her education. Her father Jan couldn’t be more proud.
Kristine, you’re doing a heck of a job adding color to your own life’s portrait. You were right.You aren’t done with you yet, even when the “doing” of some days may seem difficult or uncertain.
Kristine’s decision to never be done has even influenced her 19-year old daughter, Emily, to also keep going. She recently earned her Associate Degree and is moving on to the University of Central Florida to pursue a Bachelors and Masters in Computer Criminology to eventually work for the FBI. Pictured on top are Kristine and her two children. Below are a few loved ones from her supportive village.
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The Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Foundation provide scholarships and support for low-income women 35 and older across the U.S. to build better lives through college completion. If you support the courage and persistence of women like Kristine, please re-share this story.
Why the United State of Women Matters
Our Executive Director, Karen Sterk, recently joined forces with Michele Ozumba of the Women’s College Coalition and JRF Board Member, Linda Brigham of Coca-Cola and Letty Ashworth of Delta Air Lines on a girls’ trip to the United State of Women White House Summit. From the moment they arrived at 6:15 a.m., they stood amidst long lines of thousands of diverse women, waiting for the greatness to begin. Looking back on it, the “greatness” they were yearning for had already started while in line.
For the first time ever, the United State of Women White House Summit brought together 5,000 women focused on economic empowerment, health and wellness, education, violence, entrepreneurship and innovation, and leadership and civic engagement. As Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi stated, “when women succeed, America succeeds.” We’d like to add that when women of diverse backgrounds, colors, age, and pursuits are supported to succeed, then and only then will America be ready to reach its true pinnacle of success.
Director Sterk expresses:
"I was especially impressed with Vice-President Joe Biden’s open
remarks on America’s rape culture. It isn’t everyday that a man of such power leads a public discussion on the mistreatment of women’s bodies or to pass the Violence Against Women Act back in the 1990s. Vice-President Biden expressed that violence against women is really an abuse of power. Rape is a repulsive obsession to assert and abuse power.
Unfortunately, many of our Jeannette Rankin Women’s Foundation (JRF) Scholars have been robbed of their body’s power at some point. Rape and abuse of any kind can leave victims in a trapped state of fear. Pursuing higher education is one way to reclaim one’s power and overcome the fear of failure."
How do we connect what we do with workforce development?
Women aren’t encouraged to be plumbers, truckers, or mechanics. Yet during one of the sessions hosted by the Department of Education, panelists shared technical education tips and lucrative opportunities from pipefitting to supply chain.
If you are a woman over the age of 35, returning to traditional higher education presents its own set of challenges. Two-year programs at technical institutions can ease these concerns, provide women equitable access to jobs more quickly, and lessen the financial burden of a quality education.
We need to make sure we are exposing women to these opportunities and shattering stereotypes of what success looks like. It comes in different colors, different degrees, different roles, and from different places.
Great summit. Now, what?
The Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund and other women’s organizations are now challenged to deepen our impact and expand our reach, far beyond solely providing scholarships or jobs. We need to collaborate and maintain that same overwhelming sense of urgency and sisterhood from the summit to reclaim our power in this country as women. We encourage you to stay tuned to United State of Women events in your area.
The #stateofwomen proved that this holistic effort to uplift all women is imperative to breaking cycles of poverty, oppression, sexism, and racism. And yes, men we are talking to you too.
The Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund has successfully provided scholarships to over 800 women in 40 years and in the words of First Lady Michelle Obama, “We are not done yet! We have to continue the work.”
How to Make #Lemonade out of Lemons
If you ask Tamika what she’s been up to lately, she’ll nonchalantly tell you, “work, school, kids. That’s it.”
Oh, and she wakes up each morning at 5:30 a.m. and lays down around midnight- no big deal.
When we asked her more about her day-to-day schedule, we learned that that’s it is far more than that. Tamika is one of JRF’s current scholars, a full-time divorced mom of four, an accountant of 16 years, and a student. She already has her Associate’s Degree in Accounting and is now in pursuit of her Bachelor’s.
While in the military, she learned to consistently make time for everything you plan to accomplish or the time will never come. Her casual explanation of how she makes lemonade out of life’s lemons with no excuses will make anyone question their time-management skills.
After four or five hours of sleep, Tamika starts making her daily dose of lemonade. She begins by helping her 8-year old twins and 16-year old get to school and heads off to work. “Usually my own time comes around… 2 a.m.,” she laughs as she shares how she finds peace in these wee hours of the night.
During her lunch breaks, she dedicates 30 minutes to reading in order to be a better student, a better accountant, and a better role model for her family and friends. “Reading helps remove the noise of discouragement,” Tamika says. Right now she’s reading Priscilla Shirer’s Fervent.
Tamika first enrolled in college immediately after high school. But, when she returned home for winter break, she came back with an extra package, her son.
Teenage motherhood presents its own set of challenges in the midst of transitioning into adulthood forcing Tamika and her oldest son to share a great deal of the growing pains together.
“He’s seen the eviction notices and he remembers living in the projects.”
During those times, Tamika focused on providing for her son so her educational aspirations took a backseat. A few times, she would enroll in classes while working, find herself discouraged, and stop.
“The more I had to stop and start, it took too much of my energy.”
Years later, she’s in a much better situation to keep going, but she admits she’s still figuring it out day by day, lemon by lemon.
These bittersweet memories keep Tamika going on a daily basis to continue to make the lemonade. After a full day’s work, she comes home and cooks a family dinner for her children. While dinner is simmering, she and the twins work on their homework together.
Sometimes their dinner conversations are about money management. Tamika thinks back to how she watched her grandmother struggled to keep the lights on and paying bills in portions of payments from month-to-month by working extensive hours at low-paying jobs day in and day out, just to provide for her.
“For years, I found myself repeating the same behavior I had been exposed to growing up.” As a single parent of four children, those habits stop here.
Each pay period, Tamika sits down with her oldest son (22-years old) and together they map out what he should do with his job earnings. He is responsible for presenting an Excel spreadsheet budget to her to allocate money to responsibilities first, then savings, and then a little for fun. Tamika makes sure that all of her children understand the importance of strong work ethic and financial planning, no matter the job and no matter the level of pay.
“I have one thing my grandmother did not have and that’s an education. Money doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable topic of discussion when we have access to financial education.”
“I grew up on the back porch talking with old ladies while my friends were playing outside because of my grandmother’s fear of me getting pregnant or leaving home.” She respected her protective grandmother, but she saw the Army as a means to a better life for her and her son.
Those years in the military are now behind her, but the systematic grind mentality sticks with her daily. Now, she has a daughter that “watches [her] like a hawk,” just as she did to her grandmother. “I keep my energy up for her.”
She knows she can’t always protect her children, but through higher education, she can prepare them for life and the real world.
“I refuse to let them see me cry. When I’m alone, that’s when I shed my tears…It’s difficult some days. I [sometimes] ask myself, ‘do I really want it?’ But, I refuse to let anything stop me. I put my goals off for so long that I have no choice but to keep going.”
She keeps going so that she is better equipped with the knowledge and resources to help minority owned-small businesses make sustainable accounting decisions.
In addition to her grandmother and godmother, Tamika’s best friend from her time in the military helps her maintain the mental balance to keep making the lemonade.
“He will not let me do the woe is me…in the military, you cannot do ‘woe is me’ because that means you’re leaving a soldier behind.” Tamika certainly and selflessly embraces each day to make sure none of her little soldiers are left behind.
The way she lives out this mindset, in pursuit of higher education, is what makes her lemonade that much sweeter for her, her family and her community. On days when the lemonade gets a bit tart, she leans on her mentors and supporters. She listens to her favorite Charlie Wilson album. She instills better habits into her children. She listens to a rebroadcast of her church’s sermon. Then, she starts each day renewed, eager to come closer to the finish line.
Tamika, the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund thanks you for allowing us to share some of your lemonade recipe today.