Next Stop on the Road of Life: College Degree

 In News, Partners Magazine

This story was updated on September 6, 2019.

It was kind of a fluke. Dena Brill was down on her luck. Her nine years of long-hauling through 47 states was over after a back injury sidelined her.

Want to help students like Dena Brill? Give to the I-BEST Fund.

Being on the road was getting old anyway. She was tired of the uneasiness that brought her to the edge of an anxiety attack whenever she went to a new place and didn’t know where she would park the massive rig.

Brill went on unemployment and started the arduous process of looking for work in a depressed economy. However, she was at a distinct disadvantage like 1.5 million other unemployed and undereducated Americans—Brill didn’t have a high school diploma. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the unemployment rate hovered at 13 percent for Americans without a diploma in May. By comparison, the rate was 3.9 percent for individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

A friend talked her into attending a GED seminar at Clark College. She did and then took the GED test and passed. That was in June 2012. A switch flipped for Brill. Suddenly everything was possible.

“I heard of older people going back to school, but I didn’t get it. I was set in my ways. But now I so get it. It is fabulous,” said Brill, 51.

Clark College has opened new doors for Brill and given her the gift of opportunity. She says she is ready and is “like a sponge” absorbing all the new information, accessing resources and networking with faculty, staff and students.

After she secured her GED, Brill signed up for college preparatory classes through a program called Integrated Basic Education & Skills Training (I-BEST). I-BEST combines basic education, college-level courses and extra support to help students work toward associate or vocational degrees. Brill excitingly talks about the courses she’s taking this quarter—business administration and accounting. She intends to get her associate degree at Clark then transfer to attain her bachelor’s degree.

Brill credits Clark College staff and faculty with giving her the encouragement to pursue her GED and college aspirations. “I had a lot of anxiety when I didn’t have my GED,” she said, but Stephanie Haas, I-BEST program manager, told Brill she was indeed smart and could accomplish her goals.

Financial Hurdles

The opportunity for education almost never happened. The $150 GED test fee nearly stopped Brill in her tracks. Since she didn’t have a high school diploma, Brill didn’t qualify for federal grants or financial aid.

“When you’re on public assistance or even working a minimum-wage job that $150 might as well be $1 million. You can’t afford it,” she said.

Brill reached out to her church for financial help. They responded and made it possible for her to attend Clark. But what about others who are sidelined because of the costs?

“It’s like the rainbow you can never catch,” said Brill, adding, “there are those like me, who say that doors are opening and I’ll take advantage of it, but we need help.”

I-BEST offers four programs for nursing assistant, general health care, early childhood education and college preparation. Quarterly costs range from $900 to $1,200 for tuition. Supplies for the nursing assistant program run about $300 a quarter.

Before you get into a program, you have to pay the Clark College application fee ($20); background checks ($10-$12) and fingerprinting ($45) for some of the programs.

Stephanie Haas agrees that too many individuals are deterred from pursuing basic and higher education because of the costs.

“The students have so much potential. But the most frustrating piece is that our students hit a wall because the fee for the GED test is $150,” said Haas, adding that I-BEST enhances the entire community by preparing individuals for today’s highly skilled workforce. “It gives them vocational skills, soft skills and technical skills to become a productive, efficient and effective employee.”

Colleges and universities across Washington have faced tough decisions to keep higher education affordable. Deep state cuts for operational costs have forced Clark College to raise tuition by double digits, as well as some fees. In 2008, the state provided 62 percent of Clark’s operations budget; by early 2012 those dollars had plunged to 42 percent and all indicators point to a dip below 40 percent.

Federal financial aid dollars have not kept up with inflation. Eligibility rules changed this year requiring individuals to have a high school credential before they can qualify for financial aid. And the cost of the GED test fee went from $75 to $150.

All of these factors have led to a pressing need for private support for the I-BEST program, said Jennifer Knapp, associate director of workforce, career and technical education. As a result, Clark College Foundation has launched an I-BEST Fund to help students defray the costs associated with attaining a GED or college education.

Hard life

Now that Brill has her GED, she qualifies for and is receiving financial aid to fund her education. But she intends to apply for scholarships through the foundation made possible by the financial generosity of donors.

In the meantime, she’s reminded that her path has been cluttered with disappointments, depravity and lack of healthy role models. Both parents were addicted to either alcohol or drugs. Her mother was a dealer for a period of time in the 1980s. Her father turned violent when he drank, leaving her with broken ribs or a bloodied face. Brill has a memory of standing outside a courtroom and hearing her parents argue over who had to take her, not who wanted to take her.

By 17 years old, she had had enough. “Either I stayed and died or left and lived,” said Brill. Having moved at least 13 times in her young life, establishing a scholastic foundation was not high on her list.

She fled, eventually married and had children. Time passed, she divorced, remarried and found she had to rely on herself to support her sons. “I wanted a job wherein I could make the same amount as a man.”

She decided to pursue truck driving, but the thought of it also terrified her. To overcome her fear, she spent hours backing into slots at empty truck stop parking lots.

Overcoming fear has been a hurdle in Brill’s life and returning to school is her steeplechase attempt—the highest bound yet. But she is determined.

Earlier this year her oldest son Shane, 32, surprised his mother with a bouquet of flowers and said to her, “I am so proud of you and I love you.”

With tears in her eyes, she said, “I want others to feel this way. It’s so empowering.”


Dena Brill at her 2014 graduation with speaker and ABC News journalist, Bryon Pitts.

Editor’s note: Dena Brill graduated in 2014 and went on to continue her studies at Washington State University Vancouver.


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