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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: 5 graduating from CCAC beat the odds

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: 5 graduating from CCAC beat the odds

By Bill Schackner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Barbara Byers, 43, suppressed a giggle at the mere thought of it.

In less than two weeks, she will cross a stage in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and take home something she figured had passed her by decades ago. Long unable to afford college, the mother of three will finally earn a degree.

"I am going to scream and holler and probably just cry," she said.

Christina Plannick, a single mother whose first attempt at college went nowhere, was just as euphoric about the prize.

"It's amazing," she said. "I never finished anything before in my whole entire life."

Commencement season is full of against-all-odds success stories, but few are likely to rival what has unfolded on the North Side campus of Community College of Allegheny County.

Three years ago, 22 impoverished women were offered a rare lifeline: Free college tuition, free textbooks and a free laptop -- even free day care. It was part of a program aimed at giving them a fighting chance of earning a degree in biotechnology, and in doing so, helping the region's medical research labs meet the growing demand for biotechnology technicians.

Even with the help, it would be no small feat for these women -- ages 20 to 48, with an average household income of $7,300 and an assortment of personal turmoil and family obligations that made them unlikely college students.

A dozen women eventually left the program for academic or personal reasons, including one who finished the first year with a perfect 4.0 grade average.

But 10 others stuck it out, and the first five graduates among them will walk in CCAC's May 13 commencement. The college and Allegheny General Hospital jointly developed the Biotechnology Workforce Collaborative that has now secured a $598,000 federal grant from the National Science Foundation to allow future classes to enroll.

The women, some of whom hadn't been in a classroom for decades, had to overcome anxieties about subjects like algebra, chemistry and statistics. But that was nothing compared with the distractions some of them faced at home.

Two mothers in the initial group had sons who were fatally shot. Another lost her apartment when the building it was in was condemned. Yet another lived in housing that was so crime-ridden she stored her laptop with relatives across town.

Half of the women had a family member who had been in jail. Many were victims of abuse.

Aware that the program was perhaps their last best hope of shedding public assistance or a low-paying job, they juggled their studies with nighttime jobs and family responsibilities.

"I need to provide for my children. Period. The end. And this is the only way I'm going to be able to do that," said Ms. Plannick, who has two daughters, ages 9 and 3, and a son who is 4. "That's been my primary motivation."

As of last week, the 10 remaining students collectively held a grade-point average of 2.87 -- a little under a B.

Of the five students walking in the commencement, three will have officially finished their course work. Among them is Ms. Byers, who holds a 3.4 grade average. The other two, including Ms. Plannick, are due to finish by August after summer internships.

"I am in awe of them," said Chris Compliment, a social worker assigned full time to help the students. "I went to college. It was hard. But compared to what they were up against, I don't know many of us who could do what they did."

The idea for the program came fromJ. Christopher Post, a pediatric ear, nose and throat surgeon at Allegheny General and the head of the hospital's Allegheny-Singer Research Institute.

His clinical practice on the North Side introduced him to mothers from some of the community's poorest households. He said he was impressed by how these women with no college education managed to grasp how to help with the complex treatments for their children who had congenital airway problems, lung disease and other maladies.

As a researcher, he also knew that Pittsburgh's medical laboratories were hard-pressed to find biotechnicians trained to analyze samples and conduct experiments. He asked himself: Why not give women like these a chance?

To read more, visit the Post-Gazette website.

Article Type: 
In The News
Thursday, May 6th, 2010
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