Bag Lady 2019: The Curious Connection Between Handbags and College Access

Bag Lady 2019: The Curious Connection Between Handbags and College Access

On September 12th, nearly 600 guests gathered at the Great Lakes Science Center for College Now’s fourth Bag Lady event, a biennial silent auction that supports the organization’s Mentoring Program.

Since 2011, College Now has paired volunteers from the business community with students who receive a College Now scholarship. Mentors and mentees build a relationship throughout the student’s college career, though many pairs stay connected far beyond graduation.

The Mentoring Program is critical to College Now’s work in helping students stay in college to see their degree through to completion. With the added layer of support from a mentor, 92% of College Now mentees return to college after their first year, in contrast to the national average of 74%.

With the arrival of Say Yes Cleveland, the Mentoring Program has grown dramatically this past year. Among the four national Say Yes chapters, Cleveland is the only site committed to pairing every Say Yes Scholarship recipient with a mentor, which College Now facilitates while continuing to maintain services for traditional College Now scholarship recipients.

Bag Lady’s goal is to help sustain and grow the Mentoring Program’s services, and College Now is proud to share that this year’s event raised over $400,000 for the program. While guests enjoy the opportunity to browse and bid on Bag Lady’s auction items, it’s important to College Now that attendees leave with more than an exciting addition to their closet.

To center the organization’s mission at the core of Bag Lady, this year guests were fortunate to hear from two College Now alumnae, Leah Hudnall and Shelby Roberts, who spoke about their postsecondary journeys with College Now, moderated by the illustrious Margot Copeland, formerly of KeyBank and the KeyBank Foundation.

Shelby, a recent graduate of Cleveland State University’s Washkewicz College of Engineering, shared her story of perseverance and the resources she leaned on, like College Now, while transferring schools and remaining enrolled during the loss of a close family member. Leah, a Howard University alumna, inspired attendees while speaking about intentionally remaining tied to Cleveland while she was away at school because resources like College Now were critical to her postsecondary success.

Both young women have now launched careers in northeast Ohio. Shelby works as a Transportation Engineer for Mott MacDonald and is pursuing her Masters of Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cleveland State University. Leah, who completed her Master of Arts in Nonprofit Administration from John Carroll University in 2015, currently serves as a Program Officer at Saint Luke’s Foundation.

College Now is extremely grateful to these remarkable young women for sharing their stories and for their help in educating Bag Lady guests and the greater Cleveland community about why College Now’s services are important to a student’s postsecondary success.

Bag Lady is a unique and exciting opportunity for College Now to garner support for the organization’s work, but as the 2019 event buzz dwindles, we know that the most important work will only continue to accelerate.

As Say Yes Cleveland services become embedded throughout the entire Cleveland Metropolitan School District over the course of the next few years, more students will receive scholarships and enter College Now’s Mentoring Program, which means the need for mentors is more pertinent now than ever.

College Now is excited to launch recruitment efforts later this fall to build up the next class of mentors who will play a crucial role in supporting future college students. We hope you’ll consider volunteering as a mentor or help us to spread the word among your networks as we look forward to the growth of the Mentoring Program.

If you have questions or are interested in becoming a mentor, please contact Madeline Rife, Director of the Mentoring Program, at [email protected], or visit


“We’re miracles, that’s what we are.” College Now Greater Cleveland hosts adult scholars summit

“We’re miracles, that’s what we are.”
College Now Greater Cleveland hosts adult scholars summit

By Jane M. Von Bergen
Photos by I. George Bilyk

Inside the library, all was quiet as is usual in libraries – just whispers and murmuring.

Even so, nobody shushed Patricia Gray, 58, and Victoria Gallagher, 57, as they hugged in the corridor, alternately weeping and smiling, trying to keep their joy courteous, given the location.

“We’re miracles, that’s what we are,” Gallagher said.

Gray and Gallagher hadn’t known each other before that September Saturday, when they met at the Brooklyn branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library for an Adult Scholars Summit held by College Now Greater Cleveland, an affiliate of The Graduate! Network,  a national organization.

For 50 years, College Now has maintained a laser focus on increasing post-secondary educational attainment – from college to professional certificates – in the greater Cleveland area, helping 29,000 a year. Mentorship matters.

In the Bridging the Talent Gap Employee Community Report for Cleveland, one in five adult learners surveyed identified mentoring as helpful in achieving education goals. The 2019 report, funded in part by Walmart, the Cleveland Indians, Team NEO and College Now, pointed out that one in four adult learners – 26 percent – wanted educational advice geared to career goals.

And while College Now annually recruits hundreds of mentors to pair with its traditional scholarship recipients, there simply aren’t enough for adults returning to college after years away from the classroom.

So, at least for now, if the adult learners were going to be mentored, they’d have to mentor themselves. And, for guidance on career-building basics like LinkedIn and resume writing, well, they’d have to do it as a group.

Which was, as it turns out, plenty OK.

The food at the College Now event was good – coffee, chicken, cookies and some salad for the virtuous among the 30 or so gathered in a meeting room. The sessions were even better, featuring presenters on LinkedIn and resume writing. Volunteers stood ready to offer suggestions.

But the best?

The connections forged between people like Gray and Gallagher. College Now wisely set aside time so participants could exchange business cards – and, more importantly, encouragement.

As adult students well beyond traditional college years, Gray and Gallagher shared a common life story with others in the room. To be in college, they and many others there had to struggle — sometimes daily — with poverty, abuse, addiction and crippling self-doubt. It’s not only the story in Ohio, but across the nation. It’s a narration that The Graduate! Network is trying to change one comebacker at a time.

“You think you’re the only one, until you are put in this situation where you can meet each other,” Gallagher said. “It’s a big relief.”

Gray nodded and pressed Gallagher’s hands in hers. “Nobody would have thought I’d be where I am today,” she said.

In Ohio, just over one in four adults has a bachelor’s degree or higher. One in five adults, 20.5 percent, are like Gallagher – people who began college, but didn’t finish. College graduates typically command higher earnings. But adults who don’t finish don’t get the earnings bump that comes with a diploma. Worse, they are often saddled with college debt they can’t afford to pay.

Gallagher bounced around the country as a military spouse, earning an associate degree while she stayed home, raising five children. When her husband left the Marines, they moved to Medina, Ohio. Over time, Gallagher said, she faced escalating domestic abuse. “He even threw things at me in the grocery store.” Struggling to cope, she turned to alcohol, eventually conquering a three-year addiction.

Next? An ugly divorce. The children lived in the family home with their father, and “I was homeless during the divorce, until the court intervened.”

She turned to Cuyahoga Community College en route to a four-year degree, earning a second associate degree. The Women In Transition program there connected her to College Now, which is helping Gallagher graduate from Ursuline College with a bachelor’s degree in social work – she should get her diploma in 2020.

“I’ve already been offered positions,” she said.

Until she finishes, Gallagher cleans houses. “It’s how I pay my bills,” she said. “Sometimes I clean three or four houses a day.”

Because of her $2,000-a-semester scholarship from College Now, Gallagher can clean less, giving her time for the unpaid internship both required for graduation and key to building a career.

Gray’s story? “Fifteen years of depression and addiction,” she said. “I never thought that messing up my life would now allow me to help others.”

After Gray’s mother died when Gray was 34, Gray spiraled into depression and addiction. Her cousin raised her son while Gray slept in shelters and on friends’ sofas.

By 2010, Gray managed to get clean and enroll at Cuyahoga Community College. In 2017, she earned an associate degree in information technology. “Once I accomplished that,” she said, “I realized there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.”

Except — she ran out of money.

College Now rescued her dream with scholarships. Gray expects to earn a bachelor’s degree in IT project management from Ohio University in 2020. Meanwhile, she juggles schoolwork with a counseling job and IT consulting work.

For Gray, the diploma will mean “living a dream that was deferred and showing others that no matter where you were, you don’t have to stay there.”  Gallagher offered one word: “Stability.”

In the library, both women talked about the most basic benefit – respect. Instead of being talked to and lectured at, their education has already put them in the position of being listened to and treated as knowledgeable professionals.  

“For the adult learner, there are so many barriers that have to be addressed,” Gray told the group earlier. “You need that support. A lot of people who aren’t on this journey don’t understand what this is about.

“I’m so grateful this is being recognized,” she said, turning to the College Now staffers who organized Saturday’s event. “Thank you.”

Navigating the Postsecondary Path: Three Focus Areas for Upperclassmen in a New Academic Year

Navigating the Postsecondary Path: Three Focus Areas for Upperclassmen in a New Academic Year

“What are your plans after high school?”

It’s a question all students face at some point in their high school careers, often well before even reaching senior year. As a new school year gets underway, upperclassmen especially will start to engage in more frequent conversations about life after school and will be encountering an increasing amount of responsibility as graduation nears.

College Now supports all students we serve in their unique postsecondary journeys (be in pursuing a four-year or two-year degree or license/credential), and as the school year begins, our advisors are prepared to guide students through all facets of planning for life beyond high school. For upperclassmen, College Now recommends keeping in mind these key elements for pursuing postsecondary education:


For most students, affordability remains their top concern regarding higher education. Whether students consider a two- or four-year degree, an apprenticeship, or a certificate program, upperclassmen should research and inquire about a variety of financial aid resources. College Now encourages students and families to have conversations about finances early on to ensure that students have access to as many resources as possible.

Many students postpone their search for scholarships until spring semester of their senior year. However, several opportunities hold much earlier deadlines! For example, every year, the Cleveland Browns Foundation, in partnership with College Now, awards two seniors with a $10,000 scholarship, and the application (found here) remains open only through September 30th, 2019.

Additionally, College Now advisors can assist students in answering questions about eligibility for the Say Yes Scholarship, a tuition gap-closing scholarship available to all eligible students attending an Ohio public four-year university, two-year college, eligible trade or certificate program, or partnering private college in the national Say Yes Higher Education Compact. Students who meet residential requirements and attend a CMSD or eligible partnering charter high school from 9th through 12th grade are eligible. For more information, visit

College Now advisors will also begin the year reminding seniors that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens on October 1st, 2019. Completing the FAFSA remains an essential step in funding one’s postsecondary education and College Now recommends that students and parents gather all necessary documentation ahead of time to ensure a smooth filing process.


For many high school juniors and seniors, their stress centers around college entrance exams. To help students achieve their best results, College Now offers an 8-week program called impact!, which is designed to improve students’ ACT, SAT, and PSAT scores and increase students’ college and career readiness with a focus on reading and math. Registration for this program, hosted at nine different locations, is available here.

In addition to test scores, postsecondary admission representatives will review students’ academic performance based on GPA and difficulty of coursework. For juniors, keep in mind that most colleges will require 11th grade transcripts with applications, so it’s important to maintain strong grades during this academic year. But that doesn’t mean that seniors receive a free pass! Most postsecondary programs require students to send their final transcripts after graduation before students can officially enroll, so beware of “senioritis,” and continue to put forth your best effort.


Finances and academics make up only part of the postsecondary equation. Discovering the right postsecondary fit is equally important to a student’s success beyond high school. To guide students through this process, College Now advisors utilize the MAP (Managing Advancement Programs) Database, a clearinghouse of training and education programs that lead to in-demand jobs in Northeast Ohio. This tool, among others, helps students determine which opportunities best suit their skills and interests and how that applies to a career.

Financial aid, academic performance, and uncovering the right fit significantly impact a student’s plans for postsecondary education. College Now continues to utilize a variety of resources to guide students through their individual paths to postsecondary success and looks forward to working with students throughout this academic year!