Making Things Work
Cassandra LePouttre of Hadley is the fifth of our Profiles of Excellence for Commencement 2018.
But for a scholarship award, Cassandra LePouttre might never have set foot in a Holyoke Community College classroom. But for a few of them, she might not have been able to stay.
For five years, she had been working for a local nonprofit as a direct care staffer, without much hope of advancement and struggling to pay her bills. "I knew I needed to go back to college to advance myself professionally," she says.
To do that, though, she had to cobble together her financial resources. After a bit of research, she discovered that HCC had a nonprofit foundation that granted scholarships each year to incoming students.
"I figured if I got a scholarship, maybe I could make things work," she remembers.
She applied, and in 2016 LePouttre received the George F. Boudreau Scholarship from the HCC Foundation. Since then, LePouttre has received two more scholarships from the HCC Foundation as well as a National Science Foundation Scholarship in STEM, a Massachusetts High Demand Scholarship from the Dept. of Higher Education, and scholarship from the New England Transfer Association.
Coupled with campus jobs, guidance and moral support from various HCC advisers, despite bouts of homelessness and hunger, LePouttre did make things work. On Sat., June 2, the 26-year-old from Hadley graduated from HCC with high honors and her associate degree in math.
Without those scholarships, she says, "I might not have been able to make it."
LePouttre entered HCC as a liberal arts major but a chance encounter in a campus parking lot sent her down a different academic path. It was the day before classes began her first year. She was trying to get acclimated to the campus, feeling a bit lost, and getting frustrated when she couldn't find a cell phone signal to make a call.
A blind man with a white cane asked if she needed help. "I said I was trying to figure out who my adviser was and who I should talk to about getting a work-study job," she says. "He said, my department is hiring. You should come in tomorrow for an interview."
The man turned out to be Robert Baran, assistive technology specialist in HCC's Office for Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services, OSDDS. Baran supervises HCC's Assistive Technology Center and the next day he hired LePouttre as an assistive technology trainer.
The job was an easy transition for LePouttre, who had previously worked at Riverside Industries in Easthampton, helping people with developmental disabilities.
In the Assistive Technology Center, LePouttre trains students to use different types of adaptive technology to help them with their studies and homework, things like a smart pen (a note-taking device that is a combination pen and recorder), and computer programs that read books aloud or highlight portions of text to improve concentration. "It's basically enabling students to access information, no matter what abilities they have," she says.
As things often do on a college campus, one led to another. "Through my trainings with students," she says. "I started realizing I was really passionate about helping people learn and that teaching would be a strong career for me."
At first, she switched her major to secondary education and later to math when she learned she could qualify for an HCC STEM Scholarship from the National Science Foundation.
Friends nudged her toward the Center for Academic Program Support, where she was hired for yet another job as a tutor in eight different subjects: math, English, psychology, education, computer applications, basic chemistry, art history, and anthropology. For that work, she received this year's CAPS Award for Tutorial Excellence.
Aside from paid employment, she has also been working with a group of her STEM Scholars colleagues on a project to make the campus more accessible to the visually impaired by creating new office nameplates and campus maps using a 3-D printer, a braille embosser, and a device called a tactile image enhancer. "It's definitely been a learning process, but it is really cool," she says.
Despite her scholarships and academic success, there were times when LePouttre struggled to get by. For a while she was couch surfing and even spent a few winter nights sleeping in her car. She went to the Thrive Financial Success Center at HCC for help signing up for food stamps, took advantage of the HCC Food Pantry, and visited the HCC Career Closet when she needed a winter coat.
"For everything that I've struggled with, I've been able to find support from co-workers, staff and faculty," she said. "It's been such an amazing experience, I'm almost afraid to leave it behind and move on."
She will, though. In the fall she'll start studying math at Smith College in Northampton, on scholarship, as an Ada Comstock Scholar.
STORY and PHOTO by CHRIS YURKO: Cassandra LePouttre