Written by Sarah Fligel
Life has dealt Jenny Van-Strahlen some blows. At five, she lost her Mom and spent her early childhood in a foster home and with extended family. In her mid-20s, her first marriage ended, and she found herself homeless. But today? She’s close to completing her bachelor’s degree in psychology and human services at Montreat College. In May, she’ll attend the University of Kentucky School of Social Work for a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling.
One key to her success: ANSWER Scholarship, a nonprofit that provides college scholarships, mentoring and professional development to mothers in Mecklenburg and eight surrounding counties in the Carolinas. Van-Strahlen has been a scholarship recipient for two years. “Not only has ANSWER relieved the financial burden of returning to college, it has been an invaluable source of support as I became a single mom of three,” she says. “My mentor has been there with me through two major surgeries and in my journey to becoming the best me I can be in all ways.”
ANSWER has provided 155 college scholarships to 88 local moms since 2006. Its graduation rate is 85 percent, nearly double the national average for non-traditional students. A recent survey found recipients’ salaries increased by 32 percent following graduation. But ANSWER goes far beyond providing scholarships. The nonprofit also pairs scholars with a mentor for support and guidance on balancing family, work, and school through its Mentors for Mom program. Scholars and mentors meet regularly and attend professional and personal development workshops throughout the year.
Hisayo Gallo, a psychology professor at Gaston College, has been a mentor at ANSWER for a decade. “The secret is to provide a reliable and dependable support system around the students,” she says. “Our scholars can rely on this even after they graduate.” Van-Strahlen echoes that sentiment. “The other mothers in the program have become some of my best friends,” she says. “I cannot imagine getting through the last two years without everyone I met through ANSWER. They have become important parts of my life, and I am grateful.”
ANSWER was founded by Susan Andersen on a basic principle. “When you educate a mom, you’re educating her children,” she says. “A mother’s college degree opens doors to a better life for her entire family.” A former sales director for Mary Kay Cosmetics, Andersen saw the struggles women around her faced with divorce and adjusting as single moms. She never forgot the generosity she herself received from a local organization who provided a four-year partial scholarship for her to attend UNC Charlotte. “I wanted to pay it forward,” she says. “Education is key.”
To apply for a scholarship from ANSWER, single or married women must be 25 or older and raising at least one school-aged child in preK-12th grade in Mecklenburg or surrounding counties. Recipients can attend any school that is not for profit and apply as freshmen all the way up to their senior year. ANSWER offers $4,500 toward any four-year degree and $2,200 toward certain associate degrees. Scholarships are renewable up to four years, and scholars must maintain a GPA of 2.5 or above.
ANSWER scholars are not the only ones who benefit, however. “I have learned so much from being a mentor,” Gallo says. “Our scholars have taught me what resilience really looks like. Many persevere with so much in their lives, such as abuse, financial challenges, cancer, organ transplant, family rejection and other challenges. When they are faced with what I would consider insurmountable obstacles, they don’t buckle … they reach out to their mentors and seek our support. They find ways to cope with obstacles and just move on. They show such grit.”
It's the well-being of the scholars and the goal to keep them healthy both mentally and physically that is perhaps ANSWER’S biggest challenge during Covid-19. Many of the moms in the program have lost jobs or had their hours cut, and some have had Covid or other serious health challenges, Andersen says. ANSWER’s Emergency Fund for educational needs usually helps one to two scholars a year. This year, however, half of its 19 scholars have needed additional help covering items such as books. Some have also received donated gift cards for groceries or gas. ANSWER’s partner agencies have offered other ways to assist, such as marriage/family counseling, legal assistance and day care. Mentors and scholars have had to connect by phone, and workshops on topics such as resume building and professional dress do’s and don’ts have gone virtual.
ANSWER hopes to award 25 women scholarships in 2021, eventually growing to 50 every year. Andersen knows there is no shortage in need. She cites a study a few years ago by the Urban Institute that found that more than 200,000 women in the area ages 25 and older have only their high school diploma or less. “We are just touching the tip of the iceberg,” she says.
But what grew from four scholarships 14 years ago to 19 this year is a program that often comes full circle. Some mentors were once scholars themselves. One former recipient, now an attorney, recently provided free legal assistance to a scholar. Van-Strahlen, a single mom of three adopted children, also serves as a therapeutic foster parent for children with significant mental health needs. She is passionate about working with children who have experienced neglect and trauma and is an advocate for broadening access for adopted children to mental health services. She serves as board chair for HopeMatch, a local nonprofit which serves the working poor in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.
“When these women cross the finish line and receive their diploma, it’s nothing short of a miracle because of the life circumstances they face,” Andersen says. “These women are amazing, strong women who are willing to go under, above and through.”
Want to help ANSWER? Visit www.answerscholarship.org to donate or learn about volunteer opportunities. Donations of gas and grocery cards are also helpful. The application for 2021-22 scholarships is available online through March 1.
DID YOU KNOW: You can VOTE NOW for ANSWER Scholarship to win December’s #SpotlightOnCLT $5,000 prize courtesy of the Amy and Brian France Foundation!