How long do hopes last?

09-02-2016

How long do hopes last? In Amanda Bajzatt’s case the answer is ten years. That’s how long it took her to realize her dream of a college education.

 A talented high school student at Harrison High School in West Lafayette, Bajzatt came from a very poor family. They didn’t talk about education. College? That was a pipe dream. In her family, Amanda was expected to finish high school, get married and work for what she needed.

So she did. Bajzatt became a team leader at Goodwill Industries and was good at what she did. Amanda went on to become an assistant manager. She opened new stores in Indiana and filled in for other managers who were sick or on vacation.

 It was only after her father, a Marine who served in Vietnam, won his disability claim that she became eligible to receive some financial assistance. “I knew I had a limited amount of funds. So I wanted to make that last and go as far as I could,” Bajzatt said. She attended Ivy Tech for her first two years and then transferred to IUPUI and enrolled in the BSW program. The grant from the VA only allowed 124 credit hours. When she graduated in May, Bajzatt had exhausted exactly 124 credit hours.

There were days when Bajzatt wondered how she was going to pay for gas and take care of all the other needs in her life outside of school. Careful planning though allowed her to finish her degree on time.

In some ways Bajzatt was one of the lucky ones. Students whose dream of becoming a social worker are overwhelmed by worries of running out of money often turn up at the door of Dr. Carolyn Gentle-Genitty, Director of the Bachelor of Social Work program at IUPUI.

Students’ need for financial support isn’t that different than the story of poverty in the U.S. where families live from paycheck to paycheck, Dr. Gentle-Genitty said. They live one semester to the next, trying to survive and to pay the fees. Their goal is to get to graduation.

Circumstances may vary, but the bottom line is always the same – they need help. “Students continue to come in crying, saying they need extra money to finish, or to get to the end, or to pay for their education,” Dr. Gentle-Genitty said.

They are working, volunteering, doing their courses and sometimes have a need for these little pockets of money along the way. To be sure, there are different types of financial assistance. But sometimes due to student’s particular circumstances, there is no immediate pot of money for them to turn to for help. That’s when they show up in Dr. Gentle-Genitty’s with tear-streaked faces asking her what they should do.

 “I constantly have this drive to try and help,” said Dr. G. “Because they have already made the commitment, they have already gotten into the program…and all they want to do is finish.”

In the fall of 2015 Dr. G. was meeting with members of the BSW Student Association and heard students talking about the numbers of people in their social networks. That conversation reminded Dr. G., as her students like to call her, of fund-raising effort she was involved in before she left Belize to come to the Ph.D program at the School of Social Work.

There had been interest in opening a mental health center in Belize, but the government simply didn’t have the money to pay for it. The First Lady of Belize, the wife of the Prime Minister, instituted a campaign calling upon nonprofits and others to join together to raise $1 million. Dr. Gentle-Genitty, who was the Executive Director of the YMCA of Belize at the time, said some groups asked philanthropic donors to support the mental health center instead of funding a basketball camp, for example. A little more than $1 million was in about six months.

What made her think about the collective effort was hearing BSW students talking about how many people they had in their social networks. She commented as a joke that if they put them all together they had about million contacts. “Why don’t we ask all of them for a $1,” she suggested.

Taken by the idea of helping other social work students, the IUPUI BSW Student Association launched the Pocket Change for Social Change campaign. The goal of the campaign is to raise funds to provide scholarships to social work students on all IU campuses. The BSW students set a goal of asking 1 million people to contribute at least a $1.

Bajzatt was immediately taken with the idea and became one of the campaign’s chief advocates.

Even with the financial aid from the VA, Amanda’s journey was challenging.  She traveled to campus from her home town an hour away, maintained employment alongside balancing school, internship hours, and community involvement.  “I don’t get much sleep,” she says with a laugh.  Her focus for the last four years has been school first, then to find time for everything else.

She worked as a caregiver in a retirement home with dementia patients and people needing some extra care in their daily activities.  That paid for the gas for her car to drive to Indianapolis two to three times a week. At the same time, she was working at the Indiana Veterans Home to complete her practicum. That translates into going full-time as a student, spending 25 hours a week at her practicum and working her job for another 15 hours. One of her classes ended at 8:40 p.m. so she wouldn’t get home until after 10 p.m. and had to be up by 6:30 a.m. the next morning to start working at her practicum site.

When asked why she chose to be involved with Pocket Change for Social Change, Bajzatt explained, “In my heart I believe education allows us to become our dreams and even more. The person I am today, because of my educational experiences and opportunities, is a person I could not have even imagined I could become. I want this to be the possibility for everyone.  I know the struggle and I want future students to know that it is possible to push through and make their dreams reality.”

 Personal experiences have led other students to champion a cause that will benefit future social work students. Consider the stories of Rosie Bryant and Miriam Barnett.

 Out of the thousands of students who graduated in May, Rosie Bryant, a BSW student, was chosen to be one of the speakers at the IUPUI graduation ceremony. What few at the ceremony could have known though was except for the assistance of a scholarship, Rosie would never had made it to graduation.

When she started at IUPUI, Rosie wasn’t sure what she wanted to be except she knew she wanted to be in a “helping career.” She was studying nursing because, well, that’s what everyone in her family did. Her mother was a nurse and her grandmother was a nurse. Everyone told her, she would make a great nurse, too.

Then life intervened. Things were going great and then her mom was diagnosed with cancer and she took a year off from of school. During the year she interacted with a “kazillion nurses.”  “It was crazy learning all that I was learning about oncologists and the team, and all these people. I don’t know, but it just changed my perspective of how I wanted to help people,” Bryant said. “I felt like I wanted to help people in a more fundamental way.”

Despite the fact that she “lived and breathed nursing,” and that no one could have told her she would be anything but a nurse, “something changed,” Bryant said. She began searching for new careers. A career specialist helped her narrow down what it meant to help someone and how you can impact someone’s life.

“As I started looking at careers, social work popped up and decided I really need to explore this.” The advisor warned her that social workers don’t make a lot of money, but Bryant told her “well it’s not about that.” The more she explored the social work field, the more she decided social work is what she wanted to do. She shadowed a social worker at the Eskenazi Hospital and found she liked it. A lot. I thought this is amazing. I loved this. I was helping in a different way. And I liked the different aspect of how you can impact the life of someone.

Bryant led the student association’s efforts on face book to spread work of the Pocket Change campaign, knowing full-well how her life was helped by a scholarship.

“I would not be finishing without that scholarship,” Bryant explained. “I was at my limit for loans and grants. So I couldn’t take any more.”

Bryant, who is 33, started out at Ivy Tech. “I was really irresponsible with taking out loans, not really thinking,” acknowledged. “I messed myself up. Then she realized “I really need to get it together and apply for some scholarships.” She received the Masarachia Scholarship. “It and saved me. Because if it hadn’t been for a scholarship, I would not have been able to finish school. There would have been no way I could have paid for it.”

The Masarachia Scholarship not only helped with her school related fees, but assisted with her living expenses while she was in school. Up until she got the scholarship, Bryant was working 40 hours a week at FedX and taking evening classes. “I was super stressed. It was just too much.” Plus, she has three kids she had to worry about while she was away taking night classes.

Without the scholarship Bryant said she would have dropped out of school. Today, she is a BSW graduate who is moving on to earn her Master of Social Work degree at the School of Social Work with dreams of working at the National Association of Social Workers on policy issues and opening a practice of her own one day.

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What does stress look like? For Miriam Barnett, it is taking classes, working and finding time to care for her family that includes her daughter, her grandmother and a sister.

Barnett, who graduated in May with her Bachelor of Social Work degree, said the challenge came as the hours she needed work and spend at her practicum had to be squeezed in between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. While she had to complete her practicum as part of her graduation requirements, she had to work enough hours to be able to pay her rent and buy food for her family. “To say this had been hard is an understatement. You just have to take it one day at a time.”

Barnett describes herself as “super non-traditional” student. She started out as an anthropology major and then changed to religious studies. “I just wasn’t focused and didn’t really know what I wanted to do.” Barnett liked the subject matter of the anthropology classes, but couldn’t see herself as an anthropologist.

Barnett decided to take some time off and started working. Once she started working she found while she wanted to go back to school, she didn’t see how she could afford to leave her job because she needed the money she was earning.

“My job ended up shutting down at AT&T. So when I lost my job thought oh my goodness. You know all of this time I thought about going to school and I didn’t because of work.” With her job gone, Barnett decided to return to school.

The first thing she had to do was to make sure her student loans from before were in good order and nothing was in default. While her loans were up to date, Barnett realized she had another problem. She was almost at the limit of the funds she could borrow.

Barnett returned to IUPUI and this time around she discovered social work.  Still, because of her loan situation, Barnett realized she would have to work part-time and ration out the number of credit hours she could take at a time. “When I got into social work I thought, oh my God, this is exactly what I want to do. I beat myself up a little, thinking why didn’t I do this earlier. It just fit me like a glove.”

As for the Pocket Change campaign, Barnett thinks it’s a wonderful idea. Non-traditional students often no longer qualify for merit-based scholarships their younger counterparts may be able to take advantage. “Trying to piece together money in order to go to school can be so frustrating at times. Especially when you are doing a program and you can only take 6 credit hours at a time, or 3 credit hours or 9 credit hours, it just gets frustrating. To be able to go ahead and get it out of the way and graduate with your class, it’s just awesome.

“So this is definitely one of those things that could come into play and I am more than happy to help with that,” she said of her interest in seeing the campaign succeed.

From past experience, Dr. Gentle-Genitty knows that starting a scholarship project takes time, patience and dedication. When she found high ability transfer students struggling with their ability to pay for school, she pushed for the creation of a new scholarship to help them. Academic schools on the IUPUI campus now contribute annually to the fund, about $54,000 per year. That effort took 2 ½ years to go from an idea to fruition.

She knows from her daily interaction with students that often students need small pockets of funds, such as a couple of hundred dollars to reduce their bill so they can enroll in the next semester classes. “Many of them go without,” Dr. Gentle-Genitty said. “The students we attract are not rich kids for the most part. Many compete between paying rent this month and paying for tuition and fees.”

For the Pocket Change campaign to succeed, students have to do more than talk about it – they have to be in it, Dr. Gentle-Genitty said even if it’s $10. “If we want this to happen, we have to be invested. We have to give, we have to begin with the people who are part of our network and get them to be engaged.”

“What I also told them, when you give, it’s about time, talent and treasure. If you don’t have the treasure to give, then maybe you have the time to post on social media asking other people to give. Maybe you have the talent to craft new messages, new activities to use that to pull in funds. I think the group that is going to stay on, they are willing to continue.”

Can a group of students really reach a million people? Bajzatt, who has seen her dream of getting a college education come true, looks at it this way: “As a social worker you don’t always fight the battles that can be won, you fight the battles that need to be fought. You never know what you can accomplish until you try.”

Contact:
Rob Schneider
robschn@iupui.edu