Complete Your Degree program pushes Port Huron area woman across college finish line

Sherry Graham has fulfilled her goal of becoming a nurse thanks to the Complete Your Degree scholarship.

Sherry Graham knew she wanted to be a nurse. She says she has always had a nurturing heart and had the urge to take care of people.

Especially when her father passed away at University of Michigan hospital in Ann Arbor.

"Twenty-two years ago, my father was in a bad accident and he passed away at UM," says Graham. "That was a hugeSherry Graham practices applying a nasal canula to her simulation patient.
impact. The nurses were wonderful, and I thought to myself--'someday, I would want to work in a burn unit. I will never forget this.' That type of care they gave my dad, that empathy and concern that they provided my family--changed my life."

There was just one problem--she was afraid of blood and needles.

Graham instead joined the Army, where she served for three years before ending up in Indiana with her then-husband and children, where she helped to put him through dentist school.

From 1998 until 2004, while in Indiana, she graduated from the Indiana School of Dentistry and worked as a dental hygienist.

"The economy in the early 2000's was not good," says Graham. "I was getting divorced, and he was not willing to be financially responsible.”

She moved back to Michigan and had trouble finding a hygienist job, due to the economy, and the fact that local business colleges had saturated the market.

"I was working in three different offices, with no benefits, no retirement," says Graham.

She also started cleaning houses, travelling as far as Roseville, and ended up becoming a corrections officer in 2008. She worked for St. Clair County Intervention Center until 2013, before again moving to Indiana, where she completed two more years as a corrections officer.

"I was working for the Indiana Department of Corrections, in a male prison with 84 male offenders, 12 hours a day by myself," says Graham. "My hair started falling out.”

She finally left Indiana for good in 2015 and started the Associate Degree of Nursing at St. Clair County Community College, where some of her hygiene credits transferred.  

Graduation day is finally here. Graham is just steps away from realizing her lifelong dream of being a nurse. It wasn't an easy path, but with a little help and a lot of effort it has become reality.

"I thought to myself 'I don't know how, but I am going to do this,''' says Graham. "I want to bring some safety, and security, and peace of mind."

Sherry Graham checks vital signs on a dummy in the St. Clair County Community College simulation lab.Graham was struggling with attending school, sporadically working and trying to make ends meet--like paying rent--with the rest of her financial aid funds. Eventually Pete Lacey, vice president for student services at the college, told her about an opportunity she might have to secure extra funding.

"This scholarship fell in my lap," says Graham. "Things have just worked out and I'm very blessed.”

The tumultuous back and forth that Graham went through over the years was one of the contributing factors to the Community Foundation of St. Clair awarding her with funds to graduate, from their recently launched Complete Your Degree (CYD) scholarship.  

The CYD program is a competitive needs-based scholarship that provides financial support for an assortment of "life needs"to those young adults that are accepted.  

"The program is for those who have struggled with different parts of their lives," says Randy Maiers. president of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County. "Those who maybe have tried college, made some mistakes, but want to finish. We are very fortunate to have other nonprofits and agencies helping us."

The foundation realized that the metrics for how they award scholarships was increasingly lopsided.

"We spent too much time on focusing on how much we give out in raw dollars in terms of students in college," says Maiers. "How many do we really help finish? The business model is out of whack.”

Graham is the first recipient of the scholarship to graduate with assistance from the program. There are about 20 pending applications, and they are accepted year round.

"Life interferes," says Maiers. "There are a myriad of things that can derail school.”

The scholarship pays for 100 percent of tuition, books and related supplies for SC4 students. Life needs support includes, but is not limited to, helping young adults overcome temporary obstacles such as food, clothing, medical care, transportation, daycare and housing.

While Michigan Works paid for everything for Graham's associate degree, the Community Fund scholarship covered her rent from December 2017 through May 2018, and also provided Meijer and Kroger gift cards to assist with groceries.

"Being a 1984 graduate of Port Huron High School and a U.S. Army Veteran from March 1985 to 1988, qualified me for the scholarships."

She also used her student loans for living expenses, and has struggled with trying to understand how much money was Sherry Graham is ready to realize her dream of being a nurse.dispersed and at what time, to the point where the Financial Aid office at SC4 was probably getting annoyed by her persistence.

"I was struggling with financial aid, and I was bugging Pete Lacey in advising, trying to get a net understanding of the figures," she says. "The first year, I didn't work, and the second year, I was working 20 plus hours, relying on student loans. I was very frugal, but I did not understand the financial info. I am sure they were frustrated with me. But they helped me out.”

Graham will be financially responsible for her bachelor of nursing that she plans to start in the fall, at the University of Michigan-Flint.

She says she works extra hard to stay organized and keep track of everything.  

"It is NOT easy," she says. "I live alone, but I have bills, laundry, etc. Life is hectic."

But once Graham graduates and starts working as a nurse, she plans to pay back the funds awarded to her by the foundation.

"Hopefully, I can provide another student with that support," she says. "I'm very grateful for what the foundation has done for me. The CYD scholarship did exactly that--helped me financially get to graduation.  I was unaware of this scholarship option, and through my struggles, along with persistence, the Community Foundation of St. Clair County provided me the privilege and opportunity to complete my degree in nursing."

For more information on the CYD program, contact Kevin Totty at kevin@stclairfoundation.org or call 810-824-8047.
 
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