OPINION: College degree gives middle-aged women an uplift

For years, cultural norms kept Khadijah Abdur-Rahman in a physically abusive relationship. It wasn’t until she saw her son crying after she had an altercation with her then husband that Abdur-Rahman made the decision to leave.

“Something just hit inside of me. Something said you are either going to show him what is acceptable to you or you are going to show him what is unacceptable,” she said.

As a survivor of domestic abuse, Abdur-Rahman began connecting with organizations that helped her rebuild her life with a home, health insurance and when she was ready, an education.

In 2015, at age 49, Abdur-Rahman earned a scholarship from the Jeanette Rankin Foundation. The unrestricted grant helped her obtain a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Georgia State University.

Now a Fulton County Commissioner, Abdur-Rahman said the scholarship from the Rankin Foundation played a pivotal role in changing the trajectory of her life.

“When you are a domestic abuse survivor, you are not yourself. The lady that went through all of that, I don’t know her now. She is a stranger to me,” Abdur-Rahman said.

Joining the circle of Jeannette Rankin scholars, Abdur-Rahman found a sisterhood with other women, bonded by devastating life events and the desire to build a better future for themselves and their families.

The Athens-based Jeannette Rankin Foundation has granted $4 million to 1,700 women since its founding in 1976, said CEO Karen Sterk. Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress. Upon her death in 1973, she designated part of her Georgia estate to help mature unemployed women workers. Five of her friends established the foundation using $16,000 from Rankin’s estate.

Each year, the foundation awards 60 scholarships to women nationwide. Its success rate is impressive: 87% of scholars graduate or continue their pursuit of a degree.

Rankin scholars are overwhelmingly single mothers, survivors of domestic violence or the first in their family to attend college. Half of the scholars are white, 20% are Black and 30% are Latina, Asian, multiracial or Middle Eastern. All of the women are 35 or older and in of need financial assistance.

Over the years, the organization has adapted to women’s changing needs. Moving the application process online helped to diversify the roster of volunteers for the scholarship selection committee. And in recent years, Sterk said the organization has hired scholar alumni to work in programming.

“Having someone who has walked in their shoes is so important. You know that someone understands what you are going through,” said Sterk. Program director LaTrena Artist has done everything from negotiating car repair discounts on behalf of scholars to hosting virtual office hours where current scholars can log on to ask questions.

Leesha DeVine, 44, said the extra support from the Rankin Foundation provides the kind of community she needed when she was a teenage mom. “I was working all day, nonstop, and I knew there had to be something better,” said DeVine of those early years. “The only thing that was missing was that I didn’t go to school.”

With the foundation scholarship, DeVine has been attending Georgia State University. She expects to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work next spring. DeVine hopes to work in community outreach and to build the support networks for future generations that she wishes she had.

That same desire to help future generations also has compelled supporters to get involved with the Rankin Foundation.

When Michael Purser lost his mother and sister in a tragic car accident in 2005, he knew he wanted to honor them through education. His mother had returned to school during middle age and became an intensive care nurse. Twenty-five years later, his sister had also returned to school at middle age when her life hit a rough patch. She later became an educator.

Purser and his nephew, Caleb Hannan, decided to endow a scholarship for the Jeannette Rankin Foundation as a memorial to the two women, but Purser’s involvement would go well beyond making a financial donation. He served on the board for six years and has met many of the scholars when they come to town, hosting them in his home and driving them to Athens for the annual ceremony. The stories that the women share about their lives is what keeps him involved, he said.

When his friend Julie Ralston lost her mother in 2020, Purser introduced Ralston to the foundation as a donor.

Ralston’s mother was 36 years old and a widow when she returned to school to earn an education degree, attending classes four hours from home and working as a dorm mom, while Ralston’s grandparents stayed with Ralston and her brother.

“My mother succeeded despite many headwinds,” said Ralston, who has endowed a scholarship in her mother’s honor. Her mother had funded her education with a life insurance policy, Ralston said, but did not have the same kind of emotional support that the Jeannette Rankin Foundation provides to women in the program.

For more than four decades, the foundation has helped women succeed despite the odds against them. And for the scholars and the donors who support them, the Jeannette Rankin Foundation has proven to be an investment worth making.

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