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Photograph taken from SSP Facebook page Dec. 18, 2018.

Over 30 years ago, the academic work of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse led to the creation of the Self-Sufficiency Program (SSP), a pre-college program designed for low-income single parents. The research was clear that improved access to higher education was necessary to address violence against women, especially intimate partner violence. With the help of the community and sister institutions, SSP was created to provide a path to independence, safety and increased opportunities for family-supporting incomes.

The 13-week program consists of writing and mathematics-based workshops, where attendees gain skills and confidence for their academic careers and beyond. The program also provides childcare, giving parents the opportunity and freedom to learn, knowing their children are being cared for. Creating family-friendly spaces in higher education lowers barriers for student parents.

A cornerstone of SSP is its safe, comfortable, and supportive environment. Dedicated staff create a space where students needs are fully recognized and their future is prioritized. The time spent in the sessions is for the parents—not their children, not their employers, and not their extended family or friends. For many SSP students, it’s the first time their needs could come first.

UWL’s Self-Sufficiency Program has seen many individual successes, as students go on to technical school, four-year degrees, and doctorates. The power and possibility of liberated young mothers who know they have a right to an education cannot be measured nor overstated. A different future becomes possible for these women, their children and the shape of our communities.

According to Andrea Hansen, director of the Self-Sufficiency Program, the success of the program is best measured by the student parents who continue to show up. They continue to walk through the classroom door despite complexities within their own lives—economic insecurity, challenging relationships, a lack of familial support, unpredictable work schedules, limited transportation access—along with the constraints interwoven within society when these barriers are present.

“We work to lower the barriers to participation in SSP so participants can experience success in an educational setting,” says Hansen.  “We help identify the sources of academic, community, and governmental support that they will need as student-parents.”

Being a student-parent requires significant effort, a deep bench of support and a good measure of luck.  According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, more than half of student parents, who are single mothers, dropout and only 28 percent graduate within 6 years. Most single mothers also work more and sleep less than their traditional student counterparts.  Despite these challenges, student-parents carry higher GPAs than traditionally-aged students.

“Our community recognizes the value in supporting these students with their contributions to SSP’s Locally-Grown Scholarship fund each year,” says Hansen.

The scholarships support SSP students at UW-L, Western and Viterbo in their first four semesters back at school.

True change starts with a swell of citizens recognizing the need to adjust the path to an education. UWL’s SSP is a step toward establishing inclusive and accessible educational opportunities.

The Self-Sufficiency Program is directed by the University of Wisconsin La Crosse and was founded in 1988. To find out more about the Self-Sufficiency Program click here.