As a single mother with three children, including a special-needs son, Laura J. Hurler put her dreams to attend college on hold believing that staying at her low-wage job was best for her family.
She had been divorced, moved from a four-bedroom home to a two-bedroom apartment, and after two years of sleeping on the couch, realized it was time to make a drastic change. That's when she enrolled in HCC. Change didn't come overnight, still Hurler knew her bold step would benefit her children in the long run.
"I had the idea in my head that going to school was selfish," said Hurler, of Chicopee. "I felt that I had to keep working, even though my income couldn't cover my bills. I realized I had to sacrifice now because in the end school would pay off, benefiting me and my family."
Because she still needed to tend to the needs of her son, diagnosed with autistic tendencies, or Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Hurler took mainly online classes. Despite serious financial, medical and technological crises' that threatened to derail her plans for higher education, she persisted in her studies.
That determined spirit, and ability to make a way out of what seemed no-way, has won Hurler the Massachusetts Women in Public Higher Education (MWPHE) Student Achievement Scholarship Award for 2011. She was selected from a highly competitive pool of Holyoke Community College applicants to represent the college before the State MWPHE Board. The board reviews the nominees from each of the 15 community colleges and awards one applicant a $750 scholarship. Hurler is the second HCC student to receive this award (Carol T. Poirier '07 won in 2006).
Karen Desjeans, staff assistant in administration and finance and campus coordinator for the MWPHE, said the scholarship board recognized that Hurler persevered in her academic life despite challenging circumstances. Desjeans said Laura's stirring application essay about her own struggles and achievements moved the committee of judges to tears.
Desjeans said Hurler had to be creative to make sure she could do her online work, despite going through two computer crashes, which for an online student could be the death knell to success.
"She would go to the library, get on their computer, and hope she didn't have to get off before her work was done," Desjeans said. "Her story is very, very inspiring and shows that anybody can do this no matter what's going on in their life."
In her essay, Hurler wrote: "My children and I speak of the future all of the time now, we no longer say ‘if' when looking ahead, but ‘when'."
Hurler has already received her Human Services Certificate last spring with a 3.9 GPA, and is now completing a Liberal Arts Associate degree at HCC, with plans to graduate in December. She intends to transfer to the University of Massachusetts to pursue a major in Women and Gender Studies in Human Services. Hurler said her goal is to someday help women who are dealing with many of the issues she faced.
"It can be very difficult and laborious for a single mom to maintain her goals and dreams and move forward while doing this on her own. The process seems to take forever; it's difficult to get affordable housing, and there are not a lot of services to help. You feel as if you're on your own," said Hurler, the mother of a 14-, 9- and 7-year-old. "I can speak from experience and be a role model to women like me, that women can shoot for their dreams, achieve them. We have to know we're worth it."
Hurler said her education right now means the world to her: "You can lose your money, your house, your car, and your belongings, but no one can take your education. I realized that."
Hurler also credits HCC's New Directions program as the advocate she needed to reach her goal. New Directions Coordinator Deborah Levenson helped her get academic advising, access to financial aid and assistance with registration.
Levenson said distance learning and New Directions were the gatekeepers for Hurler in many ways, particularly when she couldn't access services online.
"She has an incredible story of how persistence, and resilience can help you forge ahead through the toughest odds. New Directions is a good partner for that kind of student," Levenson said.
Photo: Laura Hurler