Jeannette Rankin Foundation exceeds goal at fundraiser for women scholars

The Missoulian

By Skylar Rispens

Nov 6, 2022

Amanda Miller speaks during the Jeannette Rankin Foundation’s annual STAR Party at the University of Montana on Thursday evening. Miller was helped by the foundation’s monetary support for women over 35 who demonstrate financial need to pursue their first college degree.TOM BAUER/Missoulian

The Jeannette Rankin Foundation met its fundraising goal at the annual STAR Party to continue providing opportunities for women and nonbinary students to pursue their first degree in college education through unique grants.

The Georgia-based nonprofit raised $131,000 at the party on Thursday night, which was hosted in three satellite locations in Missoula, as well as Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. As of Friday afternoon about $4,000 more had been contributed from donors across the country.

“I was so grateful to have the support to keep going to school,” said Amanda Miller, a former scholar from Missoula supported by the Jeannette Rankin Foundation. “Going to school isn’t just about showing up in class and doing the work, especially if you are a woman and you’re over the age of 35 and have kids and have a life. There’s so many other balls that you have to keep in the air.”

The money raised at the event directly supports Rankin Foundation scholars and provides them with unrestricted educational grants rather than traditional scholarships that can only be used for tuition and fees. Students who identify as women or nonbinary, are age 35 or older and demonstrate financial need are eligible to receive grants.

Scholars live on a median income of about $20,000 a year generally for a household of three.

“Our scholars feel trusted and empowered to use the funds in whatever way they choose to reach graduation and ease college debt,” said Michele Ozumba, president of the Jeannette Rankin Foundation.

Mary Jane Bradbury performs a historical re-enactment of Jeannette Rankin’s role in the suffrage movement and her political work to empower women.TOM BAUER, Missoulian

Since the organization was founded in 1976, more than $4 million in grants has been awarded to students in all 50 states. In the past year, 85% of scholars either graduated or continued their studies despite ongoing complications from the pandemic.

The foundation gauges applications based on “grit,” said Ozumba. For the scholars, the support from the foundation validates their perseverance and provides them new-found support to accomplish their dreams.

“Grit will get you so far, but sometimes when the chips are down, it’s really important to feel like you have people in your corner,” Miller said.

Miller started college at the University of Montana shortly after she graduated from high school in the 1990s in pursuit of a business degree. As a student, she launched her own business, which quickly overtook her studies and she stopped going to school.

Over the next 15 years she ran a martial arts school and taught self-defense and empowerment seminars.

“Fast forward to 2015 and I got this little whisper that things were going to fall apart,” Miller said. “So I went back to school.”

During her second crack at a college degree she switched tracks and pursued a bachelor’s degree in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. But she had to drop out two semesters short of graduation.

Eventually she connected with the Jeanette Rankin Foundation, which helped her cross the finish line.

“When you’re chosen from this whole pool (of applicants) you feel like, OK, they see something in me and I am worth supporting,” Miller said. “It’s not just me with some pipe dream.”

Miller went on to obtain a master’s degree in business at the university in just one year and is pursuing a doctorate.

“Now I am trying to pay it forward,” Miller said. “I spend my time coaching and consulting with women and other marginalized folks who are trying to turn their passions and ideas into a business. I help them actualize their ideas.”

In addition to financial support, the foundation also provides its scholars case management and coaching to help them navigate challenges while in school.

At the fundraising event, Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole was recognized as a Shining Star Award Winner. Cole is a renowned anthropologist, author and is the only woman to serve as president for both historically Black colleges for women in the United States. She also has served as the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and was the first woman appointed to the board of Coca-Cola Enterprises.

“When you educate a man, you educate a man, when you educate a woman, you educate a nation,” Cole said.

Cole pledged to donate $1,000 to the foundation during the STAR Party.

At the Missoula party, Mary Jane Bradbury performed a historical reenactment of Jeannette Rankin’s role in the suffrage movement and her political work to empower women. Rankin was born in Missoula in 1880 and was the first woman to hold federal office in the United States. She spent much of her life living in Georgia.

When Rankin died in 1973, she directed part of her estate to help “mature unemployed women workers.” Those close to Rankin launched a foundation in her name three years after her death with $16,000.

“We are inspired every day by our namesake, Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, the first woman who broke the first glass ceiling,” said Monica Kaufman Pearson. “Her courageous spirit to create catalytic change inspires our organization, our scholars and every person who learns her story.”