Jan. 1, 2022, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Looking back at 2021, the Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners state scholarship programs removed cost as an obstacle for students of all ages, helping them access life-changing Grand Rapids Community College programs.
The two programs have been wildly popular for West Michigan adult learners. Some students started an education they never thought was available for them. Others picked up where they left off years or even decades ago. At GRCC, 24% of students during the Fall 2021 semester -- 3,017 out of 12,685 – were enrolled in the scholarship programs, which covers the cost of in-district tuition.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the programs are part of her “60 by 30” goal of having 60% of Michiganders obtaining a degree or career-focused credential by 2030.
“People are eager to get the skills, but the barrier has been the cost,” Whitmer said at GRCC’s Tassell M-TEC in August. “When we make this investment, we improve on that ability for so many people in our state.”
Michigan Reconnect provides free in-district tuition for students ages 25 and older who don’t already have a college degree. Futures for Frontliners provided the benefit to Michiganders who worked frontline jobs in essential industries during the state's COVID-19 shutdown.
While the application period for Frontliners as closed, residents can still apply to attend GRCC through Reconnect. The Winter 2022 semester starts on Jan. 10, and there is still time to enroll. Additional information is available at grcc.edu/reconnect, by emailing email@example.com or by calling (616) 234-3366.
Here are some of the students we introduced you to during the year who are using the programs to transform their lives.
“It never occurred to me to go to college,” said Jodi Holland, now 59. “I’m the youngest of eight children and while our parents never discouraged college, they never really encouraged it either.
“Then earlier this year a friend posted something on Facebook about the Michigan Reconnect program and I knew this was a golden opportunity for me to do something I should have done a long time ago: get a college degree.”
Holland is working toward an associate degree in culinary arts with a baking and pastry arts certificate.
“I’m so lucky not to be racking up a bunch of student loans at my age. I’ve paid for a few books, but that’s it. Reconnect has taken care of everything else,” said Holland, who’s worked her entire life, often just earning enough money to get by and raise her three children.
But she’s not pursuing a college degree just for herself. She also hopes to inspire her 15-year-old grandson, Gavin Lietz.
“I think it’s one thing to talk to somebody and say, ‘You should do this.’ But if I can say, ‘I’ve done it. Let me walk along beside you and help you,’ that’s a lot different,” she said.
Holland is grateful for the support in navigating the world of college, which can be very intimidating. Her husband, Fred, cheers her on, her oldest daughter taught her how to use Microsoft Word and her grandson taught her PowerPoint. Because she’d never been on GRCC’s campus, a young friend who’s a student showed her around, where to park, and how to find the culinary building.
Last spring, Holland started getting her feet wet in the culinary arts by working full-time with her husband at an adult living facility in Spring Lake. She does all the baking and her husband, a retired chef, does all the cooking.
“We do everything from scratch, and I just love it. It’s the most wonderful job I’ve ever had,” she said.
School was never Morgan Brink’s thing.
“Honestly, I barely graduated from high school,” said Brink, now 32. “But today, I’m taking Honors classes at Grand Rapids Community College -- and I’m actually on the Dean’s List!”
So, why the turnaround? Brink credits her new love of learning to three things: maturity, a strict homework schedule and Michigan Reconnect.
“After my husband and I lost our screen-printing business during the pandemic, I knew I had to reinvent myself,” said Brink, who lives in Wyoming with her husband, Brandon, and their two children, 5-year-old Thea and 2-year-old Beau.
“As a mom, you really don’t want to take away resources from your kids. But thanks to Reconnect, I can get my degree for free, and it won’t be a financial burden on my family.”
Brink is on track to graduate from GRCC in 2023 with an associate degree in marketing and plans to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree. One day, she hopes to start her own property management company.
Most of her classes are online right now, which works well for a busy mom. She hits the books at night and Mondays and Wednesdays, when the kids are at kindergarten and day care.
“I really try to do my homework when they’re not home so it doesn’t take away from my family time,” she said. “I’m definitely taking school a lot more seriously now that I’m older and I care about my family’s future.”
Along with Honors classes, making the Dean’s List and earning a scholarship to cover the cost of her books, Brink also joined Phi Theta Kappa, an international honor society for two-year colleges.
“It’s actually kind of crazy how well I’m doing in school,” she said. “I feel like Reconnect gave me the launchpad to prove to myself that I really am capable of getting a college degree.”
When Penelope Jones saw the chance for a tuition-free degree, she knew she had to take it. Never mind she’s 70 years old.
“My whole life, I always wanted to go to college. So, when I heard about Futures for Frontliners, I knew if I didn’t walk through that door, it might never be open again,” said Jones, a Kentwood grandmother of five.
Jones qualified for the free tuition because she worked at a local FedEx office facility throughout the pandemic.
She’s certainly no stranger to hard work. Her resume includes time with Grand Rapids-area nonprofits, businesses, a municipality and a hospital, among others. Her husband, Eric D. Jones Sr., was pastor of the former Agape Christian Ministries International, where she also worked. Together, they raised three sons.
After her husband died in 2017, Jones moved in with her son David and his family. She retired from FedEx in June after nearly 15 years as a store consultant. But Jones isn’t one to sit idle.
“I believe in staying busy and staying current,” she said. “So much I’ve seen has changed with the world going global and digital, and I said, ‘I need to know how to make it in that kind of world.’ A GRCC degree is my opportunity to dust the cobwebs off, to be current and see where it leads me.”
So, what’s ahead? Jones said she’s hopeful her business coursework will give her the expertise to serve on local boards as a well-informed – and active – participant.
“I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing -- but I will not be sitting on my hands,” she said.
After 30 years working as a pet groomer, Jennifer Lotterman needed a beer. Well … sort of.
“Grooming dogs is hands-on and quite demanding on your body,” said Lotterman, 47. “Michigan Reconnect was a godsend because it gave me the freedom to leave my business behind, earn my craft brewing certification at GRCC and, hopefully, fulfill my dream to open a small brewery with my husband.”
“I’ve owned and operated a couple of pet grooming salons over the last 30 years and it’s been a good life. But I always wished I’d gotten a college degree,” said Lotterman, who lives in Tallmadge Township with her husband, Geoff.
For years, the couple has brewed beer in their garage as a hobby. When Lotterman heard last spring about the Reconnect scholarship, she decided to combine her love of beer-making with her longing for an associate degree.
Lotterman wrapped up her first semester in GRCC Craft Brewing program and earned straight As.
“It’s a great program filled with a variety of people all at different stages of their lives,” she said. “We all went out for a beer after class recently and got talking about how we ended up in the program.
“I guess it’s not what any of us really imagined we’d be doing back when we graduated high school. But we all agreed we’re so glad we’re here.”
If all goes according to plan, Lotterman hopes to complete her certification in six months and, perhaps, earn an associate degree.
For now, she’s happy taking brewing classes, learning more about the industry by bartending part-time at Trail Point Brewing Company in Allendale, and making beer in the garage with her husband.
“For so many years, I did the same job and never saw a way to do something different with my life,” she said. “Without Reconnect, I never could have taken this leap.”
Rowan Richard was an appliance technician for a local appliance repair company. After five years of learning all she could from the other technicians, she was ready to take her skills to the next level.
She took her time and researched area electrical programs. She looked at both online and in-person options and found that the GRCC Job Training Electrical Construction program truly stood out.
“I had been looking at doing this for a few years and at GRCC specifically for a few months. But what really made it happen was when I found out about Michigan Reconnect."
“This program is beyond the best one that I found. The fact that it is in-person and not online was a part of my decision. But the hands-on portion makes a huge difference in your confidence when entering this field. It got even more attractive when I got the Michigan Reconnect and it was fully covered.”
The GRCC Construction Electrical Job Training program provides the basic knowledge and skills required to become an electrician and be placed in an Electrical Apprenticeship program in just 18 weeks of training.
Richard is interested in becoming a journeyman electrician. She is open to all business sectors but is particularly interested in the industrial field.
Joshua Middleton worked in restaurants for 15 years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit that industry hard.
“Like so many others, I started doing construction projects at my house and really liked doing it,” he said. “I had been thinking about a career change for a while when I heard about the Michigan Reconnect program, so I contacted GRCC. I just started looking through all the programs offered to see what interested me and landed on the Residential Construction Job Training Program.”
GRCC offers two 18-week Job Training Certificate programs in the field of Construction; Residential Construction, and Construction Electrical.
The Residential Construction program takes place at a construction site, where students build a new home. Students get hands-on learning and application about the entire process of residential building including blue print reading, site layout, concrete, carpentry, door/window installation, roofing, siding, and interior finishing.
Graduates are qualified for employment in the residential construction industry. The program focuses on constructing homes that achieve a 5-Star Energy rating, are Michigan Green Built, and LEED Certified.
“I didn’t know anything about construction prior to this program,” he said. “I just had the tools that I use at home for my home projects. It’s really valuable to do the learning with your own hands. I think it really speeds up the learning process. The fun part was learning all of the processes behind everything we do.”
Middleton completed the program planned on getting his builders license right away. Then he’ll get to work adding to his skills and will see where he'll go from there.
“A bonus is that I often worked second shift before so I missed a lot of time with my two boys but now it is so nice to be home in the evenings!” he said. “You can’t replace that.”
Brian Stauffer spent the last 18 years working for a restaurant, supervising five locations and had planned to purchase his own franchise. Then COVID-19 changed everything.
“It become clear that the pandemic along with corporate politics were going to keep me from moving forward with my plan,” he said. “So instead of retiring in 15 years, I am starting over at 40. When I saw the Future for Frontliners opportunity I made sure to apply before I even knew what I was going to do. I needed to have as many options as possible.”
“I’m familiar with GRCC, and its trade programs have a great reputation. Welding seems like a strong foundation for my future. This certificate will definitely help me get my foot in the door.”
This program is highly regarded by employers as a top trainer in welding and fabrication. Job developers are ready to help students with the job search process. After graduating, students will be ready to begin a career as a welder, cutter or brazer – with the skills to meet the needs of local employers.
“This program is definitely teaching more than just welding skills here. The way it is set up, it’s like prepping for students to go to work.”
Stauffer is not sure about what his future holds but feels grateful to be moving forward. “Mentally, emotionally, this program has really saved me.”
Stauffer thanked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer personally for the Future for Frontliners program when she spoke at the M-TEC in August. “This program means a lot to me and my family.”
Steven Jetton had been working as a patient registration specialist for Spectrum Health for two years. During this time, he got to know many medical assistants and learned what that job entails. That is when he looked into the training to become an MA.
“I had been hesitating to start the school and then COVID-19 happened. I just put it on the back burner until I found out about Futures for Frontliners. That really left me no excuse. With my husband’s support and Spectrum Health willing to flex my work schedule, I had to do it!”
The goal of the GRCC’s Medical Assistant program is to prepare competent entry-level medical assistants in the cognitive, psychomotor, and affective learning domains.
“It is not easy, especially working and going to school," he said. “The first two weeks are crazy but somehow you get through it! I love the group I am going through this with. We are all from different backgrounds, ages, lifestyles but we have really bonded.”
Following a four-week practicum experience, students are prepared to take the Registered Medical Assistant national certification exam through American Medical Technologists. The exam fee is included in the tuition.
“I am currently doing my practicum at Metro Health in the ER. I am the first MA Metro has hosted. I love it! They are incredibility helpful and I can ask as many questions as I need to. I really love what I’m doing and the people I work with,” he said.
Both Shelley Anderson and Nicole Freeman took advantage of the Futures for Frontliners program to enroll in GRCC’s Medical Assistant Job Training Program.
Anderson was a phlebotomist at Spectrum Health. Her future changed, not because of COVID-19, but because of a car accident.
“I am very lucky to be OK now and looking back, it was kind of a blessing.,” she said. “Recuperating gave me the chance to think about what I want to do going forward. I love the healthcare industry and when I was contacted about the Frontliners program, I jumped at the chance to get certified as a medical assistant.”
The stars aligned for Nicole Freeman, who was a nurse tech as Spectrum Health.
“Last year, I started the GRCC Nursing Program but quickly realized it was too much and I was overwhelmed,” she said. “I thought it was the end of the world. Then, one of my instructors told me to look into the MA program. It’s still challenging but with the small class size, hands-on learning and supportive instructor, I am now confident this is where I am supposed to be.”
“This program is extremely thorough. We are learning so much! I researched other MA programs offered from other schools and this is by far the best,” Anderson said. “And on top of it, all we’ve had to pay for is the parking!”
The GRCC Medical Assistant Job Training program prepares students to perform administrative and clinical tasks to keep health practitioner offices and clinics running smoothly.
On successful completion of the program, students are prepared to take the Registered Medical Assistant national certification exam through American Medical Technologists.