Beating the roadblocks: Scholarship program helps mothers obtain degrees
A Charlotte scholarship program, called ANSWER, provides mothers with financial support and mentoring to overcome obstacles to obtaining a degree.
A group of students walked into a packed arena on a recent Saturday at Wingate University wearing black gowns with yellow honor cords around their necks and tassels hanging off their caps. The students crossed the stage at the front of the room to receive their degrees.
April Flamer-Harris's name was met with huge cheers and applause from her friends and family. Flamer-Harris is a mother whose graduation has been made possible in part by the ANSWER Scholarship.
“It’s very surreal. It’s like you work really, really hard and for so long, with so many stops along the way, obstacles, roadblocks, and impasses,” Flamer-Harris said. “And then, it just culminates into this one moment where they call your name, and you walk across the stage, and it’s almost like, 'Did I really do this? Can I actually say that I finished?' Because so much goes into it.”
Flamer-Harris attended Wingate University in 2000, after high school, but couldn’t finish her degree because of a lack of money. She also said religious beliefs in her household influenced her parents not to favor her pursuit of a higher education.
“I grew up in a religious order that really did not encourage high education. Especially for women, particularly,” Flamer-Harris said. “That’s why I initially started at Wingate 23 years ago, and now it’s come full circle. I’m able to come right back here and finish. Whereas before, I wasn’t surrounded by the type of support from my parents because of those beliefs that they had.”
Flamer-Harris said she tried multiple times to return to school but struggled financially.
“For a while, I enrolled at UNCC, and with that, it was like I would take a few classes, but then I couldn’t afford tuition anymore,” Flamer-Harris said. “Then, I would take a couple more classes, and I remember my advisor there saying, ‘You are not on a fast track to your degree; in fact, it’s going to take you a very long time doing it this way.’”
Flamer-Harris continued chipping away to get her dual degrees in business and organizational management and human services. Flamer-Harris, who has eight children in her blended family, says she was keen to graduate to set an example for her kids.
“Showing them, I did this, no matter what life throws at you. You can also get the education that you want, that you deserve to have,” Flamer-Harris said. “Nothing should stand in the way of someone being able to get the education they deserve.”
Susan Andersen, a Charlotte businesswoman and nonprofit leader, founded the ANSWER Scholarship program in 2006. She said she grew up in a household that encouraged higher education, but when it came to pursuing it, her family faced challenges supporting her.
“There was no money for me to go to college, and I had to figure out a way to put myself through school,” Andersen said. “And I was fortunate when a local organization came alongside me and offered me a four-year partial scholarship to UNC Charlotte. And that impacted my life because, at the time, it was a third of my tuition, and it was huge.”
After paying off her student loans, Andersen promised herself that she would work to support mothers raising school-age children because she said mothers typically set the tone in the family. ANSWER Scholarships have mostly supported African Americans, but the program has seen increased applications from Latinas in recent years. Andersen said all mothers in the program share a similar goal.
“When these women started reaching the age of late 20s or early 30s, they started realizing they want a better life for their children, whether they’re African American, Hispanic or white, it’s mothers wanting to better their families,” Andersen said.
The program has given out over 100 scholarships and awarded more than $718,000 in scholarships. Other moms can benefit from the ANSWER Scholarship as applications are open through Feb. 1 for the upcoming academic year. Moms can receive up to $2,750 per year for a two-year associate degree or up to $5,500 per year for a four-year bachelor’s degree. Alongside financial support, the program pairs mothers with mentors from similar backgrounds to support them on their journey.
Stephanie Hale, who lives in Charlotte, is a volunteer mentor who has supported April Flamer-Harris.
“We both grew up in faiths that were very prescriptive about the roles of women and prescriptive about what women should be achieving,” Hale said. “I think that’s one of the things that drew me to ANSWER in the first place is the opportunity to engage with other women who are pushing against some of those messages that are like, ‘a woman's place is in the home.’”
Hale said many of the women said pursuing their degrees had an impact beyond their homes.
“Once they get their degree, what their husbands say is, ‘It’s my turn now.’ And I just think the power women have to lead in communities and families cannot be overstated,” Hale said. "Each of these women, they’re not just setting an example for their kids. Many of them are setting examples for their sisters, cousins, husbands, and much broader in the community when they walk across that stage.”
Flamer-Harris won’t be walking the graduation stage at Wingate University for the last time. She plans to return to the university next fall to pursue her master's in business administration.