Student Stories

A shining example of the talent and promise within each of us

Chioma Oghenekome

While growing up in Nigeria, Chioma Oghenekome’s parents divorced when she was 8 years of age. Chioma, her mother, and two siblings found themselves homeless. Her mother worked a number of jobs, while Chioma took care of her younger siblings. She cooked, collected firewood, and fetched water daily, while also managing to stay on top of her studies. As Chioma was graduating from high school, her family was relocated to the United States.

As soon as they arrived, Chioma’s family quickly took advantage of the opportunities that were available to them in their new community. For example, Chioma enrolled at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, and her mother and brother soon followed suit.

Despite serving in a “head of household” role since she was a teenager, Chioma was able to focus on her studies and excelled as a college student. Her commitment and resiliency helped her progress from remedial to college level math, while maintaining a 3.8 grade point average and discovering a sense of community at Suffolk. In early 2019, Chioma’s hard work in the classroom and in the community truly paid off. In January, she was named a semifinalist for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s prestigious Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.

In April, she earned the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, and in May she was chosen as one of two recipients of ATD’s Harvey Lincoln Student Scholarship. Chioma was honored for the Harvey Lincoln Scholarship on May 14 during Suffolk County Community College’s Recognition Banquet, and received a $1,000 award to apply to any cost related to attending college, including tuition, fees, books, supplies, or living expenses. In May, she was chosen as student commencement speaker and transferred to Adelphi University in the fall to pursue a nursing degree, and she will undoubtedly remain a leader and inspiration to her new peers.

DREAM Scholar Tells House Lawmakers About Her Struggles to Pay for College

“I am clearly willing to work for my bachelor’s degree, but when money is tight, and bills are due, I wonder why I am paying for the price for a badly broken system.”

-Jenae Parker
Columbus State Community College Alumna

Jenae Parker, a 2018 ATD DREAM Scholar, was given the rare opportunity to share on a national stage her experience and her struggles as a college student. On March 13, 2019, she spoke to the House Committee on Education and Labor about her struggles as a lower-income, black, single parent student while pursuing her dream of a college education. Jenae’s testimony focused on her struggles in finding child-care, housing and food insecurity, mental health care, and being a working student. She told the Committee the story of her journey. In 2008, Jenae started at the University of Toledo as a first-generation student coming from a single-parent home. Holding a $4,300 Pell Grant and working three jobs, she had to borrow more than $20,000 in private and public loans in her first year. After two years at Toledo, she dropped out, citing the mental and physical toll it took on her.

In 2013, Jenae tried again at Columbus State Community College, but she was now a recently divorced single parent with a full-time job. In addition to caring for her daughter, she was also tending to her ill mother, and upon her mother’s passing, became the sole provider for her two teenage brothers. This led to her dropping out a second time.

In 2017, Jenae re-enrolled at Columbus State as a part-time student, working three jobs. “Our bills got so tight we ran out of money for food and this wasn’t about ramen, we were unable to afford to eat regularly, then we were evicted. I thought this was my fault.” She thought, “Are we all (other students like her) just not college material or have we all done something wrong?” She found ways to pursue her education and keep food on the table by using food stamps, and pushed through, despite the challenges she faced.

Jenae’s daughter Journey Marie is always on her mind and, for her to be able to go to college and be successful, her daughter’s safety was priority number one. In the U.S., 14 percent of college students are single parents. However, 95 percent of campuses with childcare have long waiting lists, and some campuses don’t have childcare services at all. With the help of a Columbus State Community College Job and Family Services representative, Jenae was able to connect to Scholar House, a housing community for student parents. This representative was also able to assist her in enrolling for healthcare and food stamps. Columbus State Community College’s ability to connect her to these resources enabled her to complete her associate degree in December 2018.

In her final thoughts, Jenae posed this question to the Committee: “What would happen if congress instead built a college financing system that matched the strength and ambition of today’s students like myself? I hope my story makes clear how desperately we want to improve our lives and how very real the struggle of paying for college has become.”

Watch Jenae’s testimony here

Bringing the Student Voice to the Center of the Conversation

Eight community college students from Achieving the Dream (ATD) Network colleges, including two Tribal colleges, will participate in ATD’s 2019 DREAM Scholars program to enhance their leadership, critical thinking, and networking skills.

Meet the 2019 scholars

The program culminates in a presentation by the DREAM Scholars to the 2,300 attendees at ATD’s annual conference, DREAM, in Long Beach on February 19-22, 2019. DREAM Scholars are nominated by their institutions, submit applications that ask them to reflect on their college journeys, and undergo a rigorous selection process. During DREAM, the students talk with experts, share their educational experiences, and attend sessions on improving student success, institutional governance, teaching and learning, administration, and more. Their individual presentations at the national DREAM convening allows them to share what they have learned about Network colleges’ work to improve their students’ success and completion and close achievement gaps for historically underserved student populations. Meet the 2019 scholars here.