Christina Plannick, left, of Coraopolis, and Barbara Byers, of Wilkins, try on their caps and gowns inside the bookstore at the North Side campus of Community College of Allegheny County.
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 from J. 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?
He approached CCAC, which built an associate degree program in biotechnology geared to the women's needs. Donors, which included the DSF, Eden Hall, Laurel and McCune foundations, gave nearly $300,000 to fund the inaugural group of students.
Some of them had to complete high school equivalency work. The need for remedial instruction was so great CCAC decided to deliver the curriculum over three years, instead of two.
The program gave the students an intensive system of out-of-classroom support and tutoring -- even self-defense instruction -- to boost their self-esteem. Staff from the hospital and the institute were available 24 hours a day when emergencies arose.
Allysen Todd, dean of academic affairs at CCAC's North Side campus and one of the program's overseers, said never in her 27 years on campus has she seen such sustained focus on a group of students.
"I don't know of any other program at the college in which everyone involved, faculty to staff to administrators, has met every single week for at least an hour to mull over these students and their problems," she said.
Over time, the students bonded as they took classes together and met weekly to form a learning community. They became each other's insurance against failure.
Ms. Byers, of Wilkins, worked as a hairdresser before she enrolled. Like the others, she marvels at the idea that she will now compete for lab jobs where the starting pay is $30,000 and up, plus benefits.
"I have a father who has Alzheimers," she said. "I'm thinking, 'Jeez, I could actually work in a research place that could possibly find a cure for Alzheimers.' "
Her family and friends prodded her on during low points, but so did her campus peers. Early on, math seemed like a foreign language to her. Then she feared her family might lose their house and she would have to leave the program during the year and a half her husband looked for work after he was laid off from a warehouse job.
"There were times I didn't think I was going to make it," Ms. Byers said.
The group would have none of it. "Suck it up," they told her. "You can do this."
Initially, some of the students were motivated less by subject matter than what a degree of any kind would do for their finances.
Among them was Ms. Plannick, 30, of Coraopolis, who's relied on child support and an array of entry-level jobs in places from a supermarket deli to a Tastee-Freez.
"I saw free tuition. I didn't care what it was," she remembers thinking. "I'll learn to like it."
But now, the woman who said she flunked high school biology gushes over microbiology and the study of viruses, bacteria and pathogens. She said she hopes an internship this summer with the Allegheny County crime lab will be an entree into that kind of work.
In congratulating her, a professor told Ms. Plannick that the past 2 1/2 years of her life would have passed no matter what she did, and that she managed to turn the time into a life-changing accomplishment.
"I had never looked at it like that," Ms. Plannick said. "If I had really thought about that right out of high school, things might have been different."
Dr. Todd said removing some students from the program was painful, given what it meant for their odds of future success. But she said the school did not want to lower the requirements for those unable to keep their grades up because it would falsely build up their confidence and damage the program's credibility.
"We knew we had done all we could," she said. "There was a peace of mind with that."
Dr. Post, who said he hopes to hire some of the graduates at Singer, said a goal is securing additional support for the program beyond the five-year NSF grant, which has opened the program to men and is covering three additional classes.
One argument for funding will be the effect, not just on the women, but on their families and communities where they will be role models.
That resonates with Stacy McDonald, 43, a divorced mother of four sons who lives in Kennedy and will finish her degree in August.
She stayed enrolled despite three surgeries, including a hysterectomy.
"I've always told my sons you can't quit once you've committed to something," she said. "For me to quit, that's giving my sons an excuse to say 'Oh, I can't do it.' ''