Graduation day is a time of celebration for graduates and their families. The solemn occasion brings tears, smiles, pride of accomplishment and a sense of hope for future endeavors.
On Aug. 1, six women were recognized after completing an intense, 21-day residential program at Maryville College’s New Opportunity School for Women. The program is designed to improve the educational, financial and personal circumstances of low-income, under-educated, middle-aged women in the Appalachian region.
The six graduates include Candace Horn, 33, of Claiborne County; Jennifer Graves, 30, of Blount County; Heidi Aldridge, 49, of Monroe County; Karen Hekel, of Cocke County; April Jarocki, 38, of Campbell County; and Sandra Williamson, 49, of Knox County. As NOSW Director Linda Ueland said in the opening remarks, “They felt the fear and did it anyway.”
Ueland said, “They completed their application, they were receptive to my many telephone calls, and on July 12, they made that long and concerning journey to Maryville College while thinking, ‘Do I REALLY want to do this?’ There were tears of fear, sometimes a car had to stop and the traveler contemplated and wondered if this was a good decision. Three weeks — away from family and home — and these six women were coming to a program that was unknown to them. ... They didn’t know that as they traveled to Maryville they all shared common threads of motivation that kept them moving in the direction of Maryville College. Those common threads were: They all wanted to learn how to improve their lives, to find sustainability — and, yes — to improve the lives of their children.”
Dr. Tom Bogart, Maryville College president, said the College extended a welcome to these six students to the campus three weeks earlier, and he was pleased to extend a welcome to the new graduates at the ceremony. “This means so much in the lives of these students,” Bogart said, adding that their accomplishment would also benefit the College, their communities and all of East Tennessee.
The New Opportunity School for Women founder Jane B. Stephenson was a special guest at the graduation.
Tears of joy
As each woman stood before their families, friends and other well-wishers at the Chilhowee Clubhouse in Maryville, those earlier tears of fear turned to tears of joy. They spoke about the elation of being accepted into NOSW, the trepidation of embarking on this program and the fear that almost made them turn around and go home before they even started. And they expressed appreciated to Ueland, Maryville College and all who had worked toward giving them a second chance at life.
Aldridge said, “I can’t thank Linda (Ueland) enough. She believed in me ... She helped me believe in myself.” She also thanked all those “who made me believe I am stronger than I ever thought I was.”
Graves noted the support of her children while she was away from them during the three-week course. “Thanks to my children for never giving up on me and for encouraging me,” she said, also thanking her mother-in-law for taking care of the children so she could pursue this opportunity. “And I want to thank myself for the courage to do this.”
“I wanted to turn back,” she said. “When I saw the other women, I didn’t think I would fit in.” Those fears were put to rest as the women bonded into a sisterhood of support and encouragement for each other and discovered they did have the strength and courage to succeed. “I’m now ready to go home and put this into practice,” Graves said.
Learning more about themselves and their talents was another common theme. Hekel said, “I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned about myself. She thanked her daughter — “one of my biggest supporters” — and her fellow graduates. “I am so thankful for these women I call my sisters,” she said. “I’m excited to see where we go from here.”
Horn spoke of how overwhelmed she felt when she first toured DENSO Manufacturing, which provided internship opportunities for the women along with the College, Blount County Public Library, the city of Maryville and Blount Memorial Hospital. She noted how intimidated she felt, comparing the population of her home town in Claiborne County — fewer than 700 — with the company that employs 3,500. During NOSW, she discovered the skills she didn’t realize she had, and also developed the self-confidence to put them to use. “If I walked in DENSO today, I would ROCK it!” she said, and was rewarded by enthusiastic applause. “I’m going home today knowing I can do anything I set my mind on.”
Jarocki’s address was short and to the point. “I’m so thankful I’m here,” she said, and received hugs from her fellow graduates. Ueland said Jarocki found a creative outlet in poetry and journaling during NOSW. “She’s an excellent writer,” Ueland said. “She expresses herself beautifully.”
Williamson walked to the podium and looked over the audience, announcing, “I made it!” When applause abated, she said, “I give God the glory and praise for the opportunity to be part of this program. I was overjoyed and in disbelief to be accepted, humbled to be chosen.” As time grew closer for the program, however, Williamson said, “I was nervous and scared and convinced myself I would not fit in. Then I found out that the other women felt the same.”
She expressed appreciation for the instruction, the feedback from her “sisters” and for discovering her ability to do creative writing and ended her address with a poem she wrote about the NOSW. She plans to pursue a career in grant writing.
In her closing remarks, Linda Ueland said, “Today we celebrate six strong, courageous and beautiful women. They leave us today — but they leave behind their imprint in our hearts. It was not an easy journey for them — but they succeeded! And, NOSW will be here to support each of them as they move forward in their lives.”
The NOSW at Maryville College is a 21-day residential program designed to improve the educational, financial and personal circumstances of low-income, under-educated, middle-aged women in the Appalachian region. Through the program and continuing support, women develop essential tools for advancing their education, gaining sustainable employment and rebuilding self-esteem. Topics covered include Appalachian literature, creative writing, math and budgeting, cultural experiences, personal interest and career exploration, job search skills, internships and leadership development. Career counseling, makeovers, health screenings and clothing resources are all part of the program to help build self-esteem, self-worth and confidence.
There is no cost to participants who attend the program; lodging and meals are provided. Women are required to remain on campus and live in residence halls for the entire three-week program, so grants are available for childcare. The Women’s Fund of East Tennessee, a fund of the East Tennessee Foundation, along with private donors, provided financial support for the program. A “Thank Offering Grant” from the Presbyterian Women in the Presbyterian Church (USA) also provided funding for this year’s program.
Established in 2013, the NOSW at Maryville College held its first program on campus in July 2014, with 10 participants completing the program. Maryville College’s second three-week NOSW program started on July 12 and concluded on Aug. 1 with the graduation ceremony.
The New Opportunity School for Women was founded in 1987 by Jane B. Stephenson at Berea College in Kentucky out of an urgent need to help women in Appalachia become better educated and employed. The program helps determined women improve their lives and shape a fulfilling and successful future. Building on its success, and the need to help low-income women in Appalachia, three additional programs were established: Lees-McRae College, NC; Bluefield College, VA; and Maryville College.
After 28 years of offering the program, more than 770 women have graduated, and 73 percent of NOSW graduates are sustainably employed, enrolled in further education, or both. The experiences of women at other NOSW sites demonstrate that these three-week sessions frequently have a lifelong impact on their lives.