Adrianee Powell, 23, a senior English major and sociology minor at the University of St. Thomas, is a force of nature. While her freckle-flecked cheeks, cropped dreadlocks that bob when she walks and Hello Kitty backpack may paint a happy-go-lucky picture, she is focused and ambitious.
Busy with the responsibilities of a 12-credit course load, a part-time job and a “feisty and independent” 18-month-old daughter, Yuli, Powell has to be. She asserts, “I expect a lot of myself, and others do, too,” in a tone that implies that this expectation is a badge of honor rather than a burden.
A hurdle leads to a new direction
In early 2007, Powell learned she was pregnant. Although she and her partner had planned the pregnancy, it soon became clear that “we were not on the same page” after all, and that she would be raising their child mostly by herself. “I had to make things happen on my own,” she recollects.
When someone told her she would have to quit school to raise her child, Powell did not feel defiant, just resolved. She recalls thinking, “I’m not going to just stop my life, and I’m not going to let anything or anyone stop me from doing what I want to do.” And through careful planning Powell averted a difficult start to motherhood and a bumpy road to finishing her college degree and achieving financial independence.
Sister Sharon Howell, assistant dean of students at St. Thomas, has known Powell since her freshman orientation in summer 2004. Her first impression of Powell, which hasn’t changed, was that she was a “very bright and energetic young woman,” traits of hers that have remained constant, apparently: Upon entering St. Thomas, Powell, a graduate of Highland Park High School in St. Paul, had the support of Admission Possible, an organization that prepares promising, low-income students for college entrance exams and the college application process. Her first semester, she also was awarded a Father Dennis Dease Scholarship, which has been renewed annually because of her good academic standing.
Howell remembers when Powell, in the beginning stages of her pregnancy, asked for advice on raising a healthy baby and finishing her schooling. Familiar with the Twin Cities-based Jeremiah Program since its inception in 1997, Howell encouraged her to apply. She helped Powell complete the program’s intensive, four-month pre-admission process, which consists of a 16-week Empowerment Training program, a screening by a professional counselor and an interview with the selection committee.
Gloria Perez, CEO and president of Jeremiah Program, explains the purpose of this process: “We want to know the women are committed to their own educations, that they have … a career goal in mind and that they are willing to change their behavior in order to make the changes in their lives that they want.”
To be eligible for Jeremiah Program, which was named after the Old Testament prophet, Powell had to meet its requirements: be at least 18; a high school graduate; a Minnesota resident for a minimum of two years; a single, low-income mother to children no older than five; and a student enrolled in a post-secondary or training program. But the clincher is that one must be “highly motivated." The Jeremiah Program is very serious about this last criterion because of the high standards it expects its residents to meet, such as maintaining – and being held accountable for – a monthly budget, working with a life coach and attending twohour, on-site life skills classes each week.
Luckily, motivation is an attribute Powell has never been short of. As she sees it, “The actual program itself is not intimidating. They’re not asking for that much. They’re just asking for you to do better for yourself.”
Once accepted, applicants and their children become residents at one of the two campuses in Minneapolis or St. Paul, where they may live as long as they remain enrolled in school, and may stay up to six months after they graduate.
By May 2007 Powell already had been accepted into Jeremiah. And that October, less than a month after Yuli was born, she moved into her first apartment on Jeremiah’s St. Paul campus – a new, three-story building overlooking I-94 in the Summit-University neighborhood.
Powell works 10 hours a week in the Media Collection area of O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center. She continued working the summer just before giving birth when she was, as her supervisor Karen Batdorf recalls, “living in a non-air conditioned dorm” on the St. Paul campus and getting by without a car. “I was impressed with how she persevered in what I know was not an easy time for her.”
Yuli was born on Sept. 18, and Powell chose to not take classes that semester. But that “break,” is the only breathing room she has allowed herself since.
By J-Term 2008 she was back on campus, and she earned her first A at St. Thomas. “Becoming pregnant [made] me want to plan things differently. I [had] another life to think about. I had to think of a housing situation that would be safe for me and my child. I had thought that safe place would involve me and her father finding an apartment.” Forging ahead in spite of his absence, Powell collected herself and changed course: “My thought process became more determined, so I took a larger course load than usual, and I didn’t do too bad that semester. There were other girls at school [who were] pregnant around the same time as me.… They ended up dropping out or not doing too well. [As I dealt with morning sickness] I thought, ‘I don’t want that to happen to me.’”
Learning to balance school, work and family
Powell credits Jeremiah Program with “helping me re-evaluate my schedule; it makes me think about how much time I should spend with my daughter and how much she needs me and also how I should balance school and work commitments.”
She admits, “There are days of procrastination, but knowing that I have a daily schedule keeps me on my toes.”
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, her day revolves around her classes, beginning at 9:35 a.m. with Social Inequality: Privilege and Power. Afterward she studies on campus and has lunch until her next class: Literary Figure: James Baldwin. After class ends, Powell “[runs] errands, such as [going to] doctors’ appointments, paying bills and grocery shopping. If none of that needs to be done, I usually take a nap before [picking up] Yuli [at Jeremiah’s Child Development Center] so I can be refreshed enough to cook dinner and play with her.” At 8 p.m. she begins preparing Yuli for bed, a process that can vary in length depending on Yuli’s energy level. When she is finally tucked in for the night, Powell studies until she, too, is ready for bed.
Tuesdays and Thursdays she reserves for appointments but also attends Writing Poetry and Fiction in the late afternoon. On Thursday she works in the library a few hours during the day and takes the required, weekly life skills class at Jeremiah Program.
A vital element in the program’s intent to facilitate self-sufficiency, these classes draw on the expertise of professionals from a variety of occupations to educate residents on subjects such as health and safety, financial management, employable skills, parenting, early childhood development and healthy relationships.
Because Jeremiah’s Child Development Center closes at 6 p.m., and the class begins at 6:15 p.m., volunteers, who include St. Thomas students, host Care for Kids night, in which the residents’ children are entertained. Before class, another set of volunteers cook dinner for the residents and their children as part of Cook for Kids night.
One class Powell found especially useful was a two-part session on car maintenance: “Class was held in a garage. We looked at each others’ cars and learned simple things from changing [windshield] washer fluid to jump-starting to changing air filters.” Before that class, she says, “All I knew was to change the oil once in awhile.”
Powell also meets regularly with a life coach assigned to her through Jeremiah, which supplements what she learns in the Life Skills classes. Her coach evaluates Powell’s progress toward goals she set for herself. “I am pretty sure I would not have been back so soon [after maternity leave] without her help and help from my St. Thomas family” (among those, her adviser, Dr. Brenda Powell, Batdorf and Howell), Powell attests. Her coach helped her locate financial resources – like the Jim and Criss Renier Scholarship, which is available to a select category of undergraduate St. Thomas students, including those who are residents of the Jeremiah Program – to help make the minimum balance on her tuition. Denise Dieffenbach, director of Multicultural Student Services, also helped her obtain an MSS John G. Gearen Scholarship.
Choosing her future
Powell acknowledges that while she was pregnant she was “angry [and] just very bitter because things were not going too well.” But a year and a half into Jeremiah, she feels different. “I’m back to my old self. … I feel a lot better than I did when I was pregnant, because things are going the way I want them to.”
And that is exactly the self-determination the Jeremiah Program strives to facilitate; moreover, the resources – the affordable housing and child development center, the life skills classes, etc. – are structured as a holistic whole, meant to stimulate momentum as these women learn to make independent choices and become self-sufficient.
Perez explains that there are set fees for the services: for housing, residents pay one third of their incomes; for child care each resident pays a monthly stipend in accordance with her financial situation. “It can be as low as $10 a month,” she says. The rest is covered by grants and donations.
With the money Powell has saved from not living in the dorms – $4,000 per academic year – she was able to purchase a car, a used Jeep Grand Cherokee of which she is very fond. This, in turn, afforded her more time to study and to spend with Yuli, and, equally, more independence.
With a mirthful sigh that suggests relief, Powell adds that, thanks to her scholarships and the affordable housing at Jeremiah, she no longer needs to take out loans. “I started getting refunds [from the Business Office] instead of a big bill. That was nice.”With the extra cash, she is able to comfortably purchase school supplies and pay for basic living expenses.
Perez has noticed Powell’s determination: “Her desire to be successful and her willingness to do the work really shines through when she talks about why she chose to come to Jeremiah Program. As I understand it, she really feels that Jeremiah is helping her keep all the pieces together that are helping her pursue her educational dream.”
After graduation, which she expects will be December 2009, Powell is considering “going corporate for a while,” meaning she will work hard to earn money and save for graduate school; she plans to earn a master’s degree in English and become an English professor and a children’s author.
For Yuli, Powell wants her daughter to know that she values education. At the same time, she says, “I support her in whatever she chooses to do.” Her main wish is that Yuli will think for herself, as Powell has learned to do, with a little support from her friends at Jeremiah Program and at St. Thomas.