School was never Victoria Jacquart’s thing. A self-described rough childhood led her down a rocky path into her teen years, and eventually she dropped out of high school, believing she didn’t have much of a future. Now, as she inches closer to earning an associate degree in business management from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC), she’s looking beyond that to getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology and, eventually, earning a PhD in psychology and opening a private counseling practice.
Jacquart credits the Invest, Dream, Achieve program – a community-grant program that’s a collaboration between the Women’s Fund of Door County and NWTC – for her shift in mindset.
“When I moved to Door County from Manitowoc, I decided to get my life together,” Jacquart said.
She earned a high school equivalency diploma before enrolling in the business-management program at NWTC-Sturgeon Bay. She knew she was on a better path, “but I still had this fear of not being able to pay for college since I was working a low-wage job at the time,” she said.
Being new to the Door County area, she also lacked a support network – especially one that understood her situation as a nontraditional student. Enter the Invest, Dream, Achieve program. It began in fall 2018 to help Door County women achieve their goals through education, financial stability and career exploration.
A $200,000 grant from the Women’s Fund of Door County made the program possible. But instead of focusing on scholarships alone, the Invest, Dream, Achieve program takes a holistic approach, supporting women in the various challenges that can affect their educational goals.
“These women are juggling a lot on top of wanting to better themselves,” said Karen Peterson, a member of the Women’s Fund’s board of advisers. “From the beginning, it felt like if we could just give them a chance – not by giving them a crazy amount of financial assistance, but the tools they need to help them flourish – they could succeed.”
That path to success starts with establishing a foundation of financial literacy. Many of the women enter the program without any savings. To prevent a financial emergency from derailing their educational pursuits, students enrolled in the program are required to open a savings account. The program then matches the students’ savings to a monthly maximum.
“As long as they are in the program, and successful in the program, they get a $20 match that is supplemented with a stipend,” said Jaime Jorns, the program’s student-support specialist. “That adds up.”
And it does. Cora Doumouras had saved enough to begin earning her bachelor’s degree through Western Governors University after successfully completing the Invest, Dream, Achieve program and graduating with an associate degree in accounting.
“A lot of the ladies who graduate from this program walk out with money in savings and a sense of security,” Jorns said. “It helps create that habit of putting that money away so you have the resources you need when things arise.”
Doumouras said the program helped make her goals easier to achieve from a financial-assistance standpoint and also through the emotional support the program offers. At the time Doumouras decided to go back to school, she had a one-year-old at home and was pregnant with her second child.
“I wouldn’t have been able to relate to an 18-year-old in a traditional college setting,” Doumouras said. “With this program, we all came from a nontraditional background and were going back to school at different points in our lives. I could relate to a lot of them and the challenges they faced.”
Jacquart also found kinship with the other women.
“We can lean on each other,” Jacquart said. “Quite a few [in the group] are single parents; some are married who stopped schooling because they had children. Or some are like me that came from low-income families and didn’t have a cushion to fall back on.”
To stay active in the program, participants are required to create a budget, invest a minimum of $20 into savings each month, meet regularly with Jorns, maintain a 2.0 grade point average and attend monthly workshops. The workshops address topics such as financial literacy, domestic violence, self-care and career coaching. Often, they also provide an open ear and willing shoulder to lean on.
“A year and a half ago, I went through a bad breakup and started doubting everything, including going to college,” Jacquart said. “Being able to talk about what was going on in my personal life with the group and knowing that they would continue to support me no matter what really helped.”
Addressing the whole person is what the program is all about, Peterson said.
“Going way back to when the program started, [the Women’s Fund of Door County] wanted to make sure it wasn’t just, ‘Here you go, here’s some assistance, bye-bye,’” Peterson said. “It was about creating a systemic change.”
Fifteen women from the initial 25 participants have graduated from the program. Doumouras is among those, yet she remains in touch with many of the women from the group.
“All of these women want to see you succeed,” Doumouras said. “Especially in a rural area like we’re in, it’s so important to have that type of support.”
With her associate degree in sight, Jacquart echoed Doumouras’ sentiments.
“Yes, the savings match is amazing, but you also gain a family of women who are going to be your top supporters during and after,” Jacquart said. “I went from telling myself I wasn’t going to go anywhere in life to being able to look back now and see all that I’ve accomplished and want to continue to accomplish.”