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Soward encouraging families to engage with college through AmeriCorp program on campus

Community Engagement Mar 12, 2024

Stephanie Soward poses for a portrait Thursday, March 7, 2024 on campus at IU South Bend. (Photo by Michael Caterina/Indiana University Sout

To say Stephanie Soward is on a mission may be an understatement. The AmeriCorps member has spent much of the past year and a half at IU South Bend spearheading the Family College Engagement Project.

The two-year project was launched in late 2022 to increase the number of low-income students pursuing and persisting through higher education. It works with families to help them develop the knowledge and skills needed to support their children as they move from K-12 to college. The project is supported by AmeriCorps VISTA and Campus Compact, a national coalition of colleges and universities.

“When I talk with parents, I’m using my personal story to help them understand what is possible. I know what their struggles are and that connects with people. That’s empowering for me to help them understand they can do it,” said Soward (BGS ’19, MLS ’22).

Her story is one of a poor student who returned to education later in life. She now has two college degrees and is working on a third. Soward grew up in poverty and was not encouraged to excel in school.

“Education was not important in my family. The highest anyone achieved was a 10th grade education. I graduated high school with a 1.9 GPA. I didn’t have the backing from my parents to achieve,” she said.

Soward uses her story as an entry point to get local families involved with the IU South Bend program.

“I understand the poverty level challenges so innately. Poverty is our shared experience. It creates a sense of familiarity among families and caregivers. Often, this leads to discussions where questions arise about how they can assist their child in transitioning to college,” she said.

Soward’s passion is evident to those who work with her on the Family College Engagement Project.

“Stephanie’s dedication to serving those in need is unmatched. She has worked hard to build strong relationships with community partners and parents alike, with trust and mutual respect as the foundation,” said Elizabeth Paice, chief of staff for the IU South Bend chancellor.

“She is continuously looking at how we can improve the support we are offering families and finding new opportunities to expand our impact. She is also forever learning and sharing her knowledge with others.”

Growing up with a lack of self-esteem and little encouragement from her mother, Soward admits she could have lived off government assistance. She said her children helped her realize she had the strength to lift herself up, even though doubts remained.

“I found myself in a situation that had persisted in my family for many generations. During the time I became a parent, I was in a challenging marriage, a difficulty that was generational in nature. Reflecting on my children’s future, I realized the necessity of pursuing education to secure a better life for them. The belief in my ability to achieve what I am accomplishing today, and the thought that others would value my words, were beyond my imagination,” she said.

She enrolled in nursing school, but eventually dropped out to get a job to support her daughters. Years later, she was re-married and had worked hard to find a good job, but she wasn’t satisfied professionally.

“So, when the kids were in high school, I decided to go back to school. I encountered an owl during one of my walks. It had a majestic wingspan that was as wide as the trail I was walking on. To me, that was a sign to follow what my heart was suggesting. So, I embraced the new path and moved forward,” she said.

Now she’s excited that both daughters have followed her lead and are about to graduate from IU Bloomington. Soward admits one daughter struggled the first semester like she did.

“My husband, Matt, and I emphasized to her the significance of choosing a major based on her own personal passion. As a result, she is set to receive her bachelor’s degree from IU in May, navigating her academic journey on her own terms. Her sister is scheduled to graduate in May of 2025, a milestone that will coincide with my own graduation,” she said.

Soward will graduate with a second master’s degree – this one in public administration.

“We’ve stopped that generational cycle so it’s so exciting,” she said, noting how education was key in breaking the cycle.

Once her time with AmeriCorps wraps up at IU South Bend, Soward hopes to continue helping lift people out of difficult circumstances.

“I’ve been networking for the last two years. You have to start locally but think globally because everything impacts everything else. I learned that government and education are tied together. To make transformational change, you have to follow the rules, but be able to put the pieces together to get things done,” she said.

Soward said everyone wants to be part of something bigger, but some people have so much trauma in their lives they perceive opportunities differently. That’s why programs like the Family College Engagement Project mean so much to her.

“You can’t change everybody, but if I can reach one family that starts that ripple, they talk to others and eventually you start to make a difference. To make systemic changes is not easy,” she said.

Soward is currently writing a book detailing her life experiences, focusing on overcoming childhood trauma and abuse. She wants to assist others in recognizing their intrinsic value and understanding that they matter, through sharing her journey of healing and empowerment.

“At first I didn’t want to publish it because my mom would see it and it might hurt her. But someone told me the stories might help a lot of people. I think I have now found peace with my mother which allows me to work on it,” she said.

In the meantime, she’ll continue to advocate for families and help them on the path to higher education.

“This program will be successful to me if it ensures sustained parental involvement, fostering an environment where they feel welcomed and comfortable on campus. My firm belief is that witnessing their child’s success and recognizing that others also value their child’s contributions may inspire them to see their own potential for achievement,” she said.



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