Roshonda DeGraffenreid had a miserable educational experience in high school and barely graduated. She was working in customer service when she decided to enroll at HCC. "I didn't like the direction my life was going," she said. DeGraffenreid, 06, was one of HCC's first Pathways students. Although she brought a lot of baggage to HCC as a result of her experience in high school, she says the college helped her gain confidence in her abilities, sparked her interest in education, and ultimately prepared her for transfer to Mt. Holyoke College. "I came here because I just wanted to change my life."
DeGraffenreid was part of a peer panel held last week for students in HCC's Pathways program. Pathways provides special support services and classes for both traditional and non-traditional students at HCC with the goal of preparing them for transfer to selective four-year schools. The six women on last week's panel all transferred from HCC to either Smith or Mt. Holyoke College, and they all came through Pathways.
Onawa LaBelle, '09, has thrived in the Ada Comstock program at Smith College in Northampton. But the path that led her there began at HCC. "The work here really prepared me for the work there," she told the classroom full of HCC students. "I didn't find the leap a stretch. If you're worried about that, don't be."
Although their stories were all unique, the six women, like the students who listened, share many of the same life experiences: single motherhood, dead-end jobs, poor high school performance, low self-esteem. The most common theme was fear—fear that they wouldn't be successful in college, and once they demonstrated success at HCC, fear that their skills would not translate to elite schools like Smith and Mt. Holyoke.
"It's not as scary as you think," said Audrey Figarella, '09, now a student at Smith, where she is majoring in theater with a minor in Latin American studies. Figarella was the mother of three when she first came to HCC, and, like the others, hadn't had much success in high school. "I was afraid to go to Smith, but I immediately felt at home as soon as I stepped on campus."
Hillary Reale, '11, waited 18 years before she returned to the classroom. She'd hated high school and initially had no interest in college. She was married and a mother and folding towels for a living. Ultimately, she was inspired by a co-worker who went to HCC, transferred to Mt. Holyoke College and went on to earn a PhD.
"I showed up here scared to death," she said. Slowly, though, she started to gain confidence as a student. "HCC gave me that boost."
She is now a student at Smith. "The fear," she said, "it goes away."
Photos: (Left) Roshonda DeGraffenreid, left, and Onawa LaBelle talk to HCC students at a Pathways Peer Panel discussion. (Right) Alumna Hillary Reale talks about her experiences at HCC and Smith College.