As a single parent, studying at SUNY Fulton-Montgomery Community College full-time is a sacrifice for Amsterdam resident Jessica Bortell.
It leaves her fewer hours to work and to be with her 9-year-old son Dinari. However, it’s a sacrifice that she’s hoping will pay off, and in the meantime, she’s found help through the Family Empowerment Community College Pilot Program.
It aims to help single parents who are attending college by providing daycare services, laptop loans, emergency fund assistance, tutoring, workshops and career counseling, among other services. It’s a State University of New York program that was launched three years ago.
“FM is one of nine SUNY community colleges that are administering this grant so we’re really fortunate to have this particular program,” said Laura LaPorte, the associate dean of student recruitment and admissions.
It’s the final year of the pilot program, which is open to single parents living at or below 250% of the poverty level. There are currently 38 students enrolled, including Bortell.
Before attending FMCC, she worked 60-plus hours a week and had several jobs, including at health insurance companies, bars/restaurants and collections.
“I wasn’t spending any time with my son. I was missing out on a lot. So I decided I’m just going to have to sacrifice for a little bit and take a cut on income and get help from the school so I could try to get a better career so I could spend more time with him,” Bortell said.
In 2017, she started studying phlebotomy through FMCC’s Individual Studies program — a short-term program that allows students to earn certificates through hands-on training and related college coursework.
“I did hands-on training right at St. Mary’s Healthcare and they offered me a job before I even completed it,” Bortell said.
After that, she worked part-time at the hospital and decided to go into the health studies program. She is currently working toward her associate’s degree in radiologic technology. At the same time, she’s working at Liberty ARC, which builds on her patient care experience and provides flexible hours.
However, it remains a challenge to manage everything on her plate.
“It’s definitely been a struggle. I go to school full-time, I work part-time and then I’m a single mom, so I have the household on top of that to take care of. So I can’t work as much as I used to before I started school so financially I’m struggling,” Bortell said.
Through the Family Empowerment program, she and the other students enrolled receive gift cards for everything from groceries to gas.
“It’s not uncommon for people to run up against some hard times and we do have a process that we can help out with some emergency funding,” LaPorte said. That includes assisting with National Grid bills, phone bills and even car repairs.
“It ranges in what we can help them with but we usually can help them with a bill a semester,” said Emily Towne, who is an academic coach with the Family Empowerment program.
She regularly checks in with each student enrolled via a messaging platform called Mongoose Cadence to see what they might need help with and to keep them up to date with what’s going on around campus.
“They’re always sending me reminders . . . about deadlines for school and programs that are available. So it’s very helpful to keep me on track because sometimes I do get overwhelmed and forget what needs to be done,” Bortell said.
Towne also tutors students and runs student workshops, as well as a student support group.
“We found that especially in our program, we have a lot of health studies, nursing and rad tech majors, so when we were doing support group, not only was it good for them to get the stress of being a single parent off their chests but they ended up forming these study groups and these friendships and finding someone that they knew within the same major as them,” Towne said.
Childcare is also an important part of the program. There’s an on-campus daycare program for young children. For school-aged children, daycare is offered through the Fulton County YMCA.
“Certainly, during the pandemic, there was a need for remote learning and so forth and the Fulton County YMCA was very innovative and they’ve got fantastic daycare services on their site at the YMCA but they also implemented some great remote so if your student was remote and you had to go to work, they could still go to the YMCA and they had a fantastic mechanism by which to keep track of who had to be online [and] when,” LaPorte said.
By removing some of these financial barriers, the program aims to make it easier for single parents to get their degrees and either move on to a four-year college or go into the workforce.
After graduation, Bortell plans to get a job in the radiology department at a local hospital and expects to earn a starting salary somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000.
“I’m okay with that,” Bortell said.
LaPorte noted that it’s a good return on investment. Tuition for New York State residents is $2,520 per semester.
Administrators are trying to spread the word about the Family Empowerment program around campus, especially because there’s no cap on how many students can enroll.
“We’re still trying throughout each semester [to] actively identify and recruit. I’ve been going in the classrooms and giving presentations, especially in some of the programs where we know there’s a lot more adult learners like health studies,” Towne said.
For those interested in applying for the program, especially for first-time students, LaPorte recommends attending in the fall semester. For those who are interested but can’t necessarily commit to a two-year degree, there are certificate and micro-credential programs available.
“It’s a way for adult students to fast track their skills without having to make the sacrifice, or maybe they can’t make the sacrifice of spending years earning an associate’s [sic] degree,” LaPorte said.
For more information on the Family Empowerment Community College Pilot Program, visit fmcc.edu.