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Domestic violence survivors move out of abusive relationships and into school

A Boston-area initiative helps women gain the skills they need to become financially self-reliant and free from their abusers.

Under the thumb of an abusive husband, it's not easy to take college courses. Susan tried. But when she sat down to study, her husband would complain that she wasn't making supper. He controlled access to their car, their cellphone, their money.

A friend who had been through it herself recognized patterns of abuse and urged Susan to seek help. With support from a community center for domestic violence survivors, she moved out last year with her son and daughter.

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Within a month, the center had helped her enroll at the Chelsea, Mass., campus of Bunker Hill Community College. Through a groundbreaking partnership between the college and HarborCOV (Communities Overcoming Violence), Susan received a grant covering tuition for one course, child care, and books. And she instantly joined a supportive network of counselors and fellow students breaking free from abusive relationships. (She agreed to tell her story to the Monitor on the condition that her real name be withheld.)

The need for additional education "is one of the significant common issues for survivors [of abuse]," says Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Often they have to master new skills to earn higher incomes and support children without a partner; they may be immigrants with college degrees but not enough English skills to obtain credentials in the United States; or their attempts to further their education may have been sabotaged.

The partnership – the Chelsea Community Education and Support Initiative – also signifies a renewed effort at many community colleges to boost retention rates by offering students more support. Help in coping with nonacademic responsibilities such as work and family is one area identified as needing improvement by the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, conducted annually by the University of Texas, Austin. In 2006, 24 percent of students said their college did well in this area, while 43 percent said their college did very little.

Ms. Smith hopes to see more such partnerships emerge. "It can reduce a huge number of obstacles," she says. "The more resources we can bring in from the community, the more likely it is that [survivors] are going to be able to end the violence."

For Susan, moving out on her own was a huge relief – "just knowing that [my ex-husband] had no control over whether or not I got an education.... Being able to sit down and do [homework] without anybody bothering me, it was good." To be a teacher at a day-care center, an associate's degree will eventually be a job requirement, and she'd like to get even more schooling so she can run her own center someday.

She pulls out a folder of homework that's covered with loving messages from her 8-year-old daughter. With a smile of quiet pride, she describes how her kids sit at a small red table next to her computer so they can all do homework together. "I like them seeing that I have good study habits."

HarborCOV helps 300 people a year with emergency shelter, but about 3,000 people from the immigrant-rich community near Boston seek counseling, transitional housing, child care, and other services in the wake of domestic violence.

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In a survey two years ago, 35 percent said they wanted to continue their education, but they needed financial and other types of assistance, says Analia Lemmo, HarborCOV's economic development coordinator. Child care for evening courses is difficult to find, and financial aid often doesn't cover classes for English as a second language, she says. "The other barrier has to do with self-esteem.... People that have gone through domestic violence and abuse, they usually have doubts about their own capacity.... They need to sometimes have reassurance that they can do this."

The organizers received a $20,000 grant from the Boston Foundation to launch the initiative in the fall of 2006. Nearly 20 people signed up to attend a class of their choice and meet regularly with advisers and the group. At the end of the school year, 87 percent were still enrolled – a retention rate that organizers found surprisingly high. This year, with a $25,000 grant from the Stratford Foundation Inc. in Needham, Mass., they expect about 25 students to participate, including some who started last year.

"The goal is to give them everything they need so they can overcome the barriers they're facing, but we also want to treat them just like every other college student," says Judith Graham, a staff member at Bunker Hill who oversees the grant. Advisers help students apply for financial aid and find other resources so they can continue their studies beyond what the grant covers.

Ms. Lemmo has seen the confidence of participants soar. Whether they have mastered computer skills that improved their performance on the job or have begun degree programs that they couldn't have imagined before, they take great pride in their accomplishments, she says. "Chelsea is a small community.... Sometimes you're walking and someone comes up and says, 'Look at my grade.... I got an A!' " At the end of the academic year, she surveyed participants and all of them wanted to get into a degree program, if they weren't already.

"We think this project has potential to be replicated in other communities," Lemmo says. She hopes this year they'll be able to offer technical service to other Massachusetts community colleges and domestic-violence organizations that want to pair up.

There's a long tradition of community colleges serving the needs of particular groups, whether it was special programs during the women's movement in the 1970s or single parents or people with disabilities, says Norma Kent of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington. "It boils down to access," she says. "It's the cornerstone of our mission.... Any population, any individual should have some point of access" to higher education.

The HarborCOV group's academic adviser at Bunker Hill, MaryAnne Miller, draws an analogy to the Statue of Liberty: "Students come in at all different levels, from all different places, at all different points in their lives, and the community college is ... flexible enough to give services."

Ms. Miller meets with them and calls to check in, especially when midterms or finals are approaching. "We're working hard to keep them engaged," she says. But she's seen Susan and some others become very independent: "I was delighted when [Susan] came in at the beginning of this academic year to let me know that she had, on her own, solved a tricky scheduling problem."

Susan, a high school graduate, took one course at a time last year, but she gained enough confidence to take on two courses this semester – college-level English and algebra. Still working 30 hours a week, she sometimes fits in homework while she's cooking dinner. The monthly meetings with other students from HarborCOV help keep her going. "This one woman last year ... she had her baby and she was back in class the next week," she says. "I was like, 'That's incredible! If she can do it, you definitely can do it.' "