When you think of a college student, Uvern Carr-Mines might not be the image that comes to mind. A 41-year-old with a husband and three young children, she is a former nurse technician considering a career change. With a life that she describes as “very, very busy,” classes can be hard to fit in.

Enter Elevate, a Catholic Charities program focused on helping community-college students with significant financial needs overcome the non-academic barriers that can lead them to drop out. Participating students are paired with trained navigators who help address all kinds of challenges that might prevent them from completing their degrees.

Seemingly small obstacles can derail a student’s trajectory. Carr-Mines, who started with the program in 2019, describes a time early in her schooling when her car broke down after hitting a pothole. Her thoughts turned immediately to the cost of repairs and how she needed to get her kids to sports practice and other activities – not to her classes at the Catonsville, Maryland, campus of the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). Elevate quickly provided financial support for car repairs.

“I can’t just jump up and get a job – I’m a full time student and a full time mother. I have to be there when there’s an emergency. If it’s not the dental, it’s ‘Mom, I’m not feeling good,’ or a project that needs to be done at school,” she said. “Elevate stepped right in, and they were there to save the day.”

“Life happens”

Nationally and in Maryland, only about 40 percent of community-college students obtain a degree within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. But that data was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, which may affect completion rates.

“Life happens away from the classroom and can be very detrimental for a student’s intention to stay in school,” said Program Manager Mark Saunders, listing transportation, homelessness and child care as hurdles the program aims to help students overcome.

Restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the demands on many students. Carr-Mines and her three children, for example, were all trying to complete assignments virtually from home.

“All of them were online learning at home with me, so it was very challenging. But we all persevered and got through it,” she said, adding that she made straight A’s last semester, despite the challenges. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to make it if I didn’t have the faith and trust in God the way that I do because it was almost impossible.”

Elevate is there to help students through those “almost impossible” situations. The program’s navigators focus on students’ particular objectives – getting a better job, moving to a safer neighborhood, managing mental health challenges. Navigators help students set obtainable goals, access necessary supports and track progress. Elevate also offers small financial grants to help students through tough situations, which may include making rent, buying food, fixing a broken car or finding a therapist.

Easing the burden 

“I’ve been in awe of the tremendous burdens that many of these students carry,” said Latasha Davis, an Elevate support specialist, adding the program’s connection to Catholic Charities makes a difference in the support Elevate can provide. “I don’t just give the students a list of resources. I call [colleagues for] comprehensive wrap-around services.”

Catholic Charities launched the program in summer 2019, with support from Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, Texas. Today, the program includes 22 students across CCBC’s Catonsville and Essex campuses, with plans to grow. As Elevate expands to CCBC’s Dundalk campus, however, it will need to continue proactive efforts to recruit participants.

“COVID had a disastrous effect on recruiting, since the campuses were shut down during the spring and fall 2020 semesters, and our recruitment model focuses on face-to-face interactions with students,” Saunders explained.

Having pushed through various challenges, Carr-Mines said she expects to finish her degree this year. She eventually wants to work in a human services field and  is also considering continuing her education to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“I had to drop out when I was younger… I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would go back,” she said. “I think this is so good for my kids to see – just never stop, no matter how stressful life will get.”

Students interested in applying to Elevate can start with an application through Catholic Charities’ website.