Jessica Bartels was pregnant with her second child and working as a housekeeper at Florida Hospital when she realized she needed to do more if she was going to give her children a better future.
“I felt like I was trapped,” Bartels, now a USF student majoring in mass communications, said. “I was working a minimum wage job and I knew that would be my future if I didn’t change it.”
So in 2008, while on maternity leave from her housekeeping job, Bartels began looking into her options and chose to attend Hillsborough Community College (HCC) to get her associate degree. Bartels had to accept the difficulties of attending classes, including the financial pressure and raising her children.
During her final year at HCC, Bartels faced another battle: her third daughter was born with a heart disease that required surgery.
“I spent a lot of time in the hospital with her instead of dropping out of classes when it was very hard for me,” Bartels said. “I actually chose all my classes as online classes and took my classes in the hospital with her so that I could continue doing what I had to do, so that when she got out we could go home and have something better.”
After leaving HCC in 2010 with her associate degree, Bartels set her sights on attending USF to continue her education. Beginning in the Spring 2014 semester, Bartels actively sought scholarships offered by the university.
After growing accustomed to being turned down for scholarships, Bartels was selected as the winner of the Tampa Palms Women’s Club Scholarship, beating out 38 candidates for the $1,000 award. The scholarship is sponsored by the Tampa Palms Women’s Club, but it is the Women in Leadership and Philanthropy (WLP) program at USF that select the winner.
Similar to other scholarships offered through WLP, the Tampa Palms Women’s Club Scholarship has a preference for women of “non-traditional age” attending USF.
For Sharon Hamisak, assistant director of the USF Foundation Scholarship Office, non-traditional students such as Bartels can have a difficult time entering college after having been away from school for a period of time.
“Often times non-traditional students have to take a break from their education because of life,” Hamisak said. “You start a family or you have to work because you can’t afford your education.”
At 27 years old and mother to three children, Bartels had begun to feel scholarships lacked concern for non-traditional students.
“I applied for many scholarships and over and over I was denied,” Bartels said. “I’m a decent student so I couldn’t figure out why. I thought maybe it was because of my age and the fact that I have children.”
However, when Bartels won the Tampa Palms Women’s Club Scholarship, she said it proved there are supporters in the local area wishing to see women in such situations succeed.
“It felt really good to have these women in leadership positions to give me encouragement,” Bartels said.
As part of winning the scholarship, Bartels was able to meet with members of the WLP as well as the donors from the Tampa Palms Women’s Club, which are elements of any WLP scholarship. Bartels said she believes this is important for creating a support group.
“Not only is she getting the financial support of the scholarship but there is that networking and mentoring component which is what makes WLP unique,” Hamisak said.
For women in difficult financial situations, attending school could be a way to break the pattern of minimum wage. Yet, as seen in Bartel’s case, the costs of school can discourage those looking to create a better future for themselves.
“I rely a lot on loans and I have thousands and thousands of dollars of loans and debt and I haven’t even gotten my bachelor’s degree yet,” Bartels said.
It is women such as Bartels that WLP has been supporting at USF for the past nine years en route to awarding thousands of dollars in scholarships annually. For Bartels, receiving such a scholarship is just a reminder that the expenses and work are all to ensure the best for her and her family.
“It’s like everything in life, you have to weigh the pros and the cons and I think that the cost is a very big con,” Bartels said. “But for me the pros just outweigh the cons.”