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Rogue Community College's SOHOPE program a finalist for Bellwether Award

The odds seem to have always been stacked against Savannah Bible.

She was a longshot when she applied for a grant at Rogue Community College in 2017, pregnant with her first child. She was still an underdog when she frantically called a professor during a storm, explaining that she couldn’t make it to class that day because her trailer had flooded.

And she was fighting an uphill battle of sorts a week after turning in her last assignment at RCC, right up until the moment Wednesday when she received a call from the employer who had interviewed her only two days prior. Congratulations, the voice said, you’re hired.

“I cried,” Bible said. “I was so excited.”

Bible’s success story is one of more than 500 that can be attributed to RCC’s Southern Oregon Health Occupations Poverty Elimination Project (SOHOPE), which was recently selected as a finalist for the 2021 Bellwether Award. Competitively judged, the Bellwether honors cutting-edge, trendsetting community college programs that other colleges “might find worthy of replicating,” according to its website (bellwethercollegeconsortium.com). The award is handed out annually in three categories — Workforce Development; Planning, Governance and Finance; and Instructional Programs and Services.

RCC, which scored another Bellwether nomination for which it didn’t win two years ago, has been nominated in the 2021 Workforce Development category. All finalists will present virtually at the 2021 Community Colleges Futures Assembly Jan. 25-26, during which the winners will be announced.

“We are so excited for this opportunity,” said Lisa Parks, RCC’s director of Allied Health and the SOHOPE program. “We really feel like we have a shot at winning this because we have had to be pretty innovative in making this happen and rolling out this mission within a community college that traditionally is working for student benefit, for sure, but hasn’t always been able to connect so deeply into the community to walk people through these processes holistically.”

Rolled out in 2015, SOHOPE was designed to provide training in health care careers to people who face high education barriers. It was funded through a federal Health Profession Opportunity Grant, which was created to provide education and training to low-income students for occupations in the health care field that pay well and are expected to either experience labor shortages or be in high demand (Bible, for instance, was hired as a medical assistant).

Parks said the program’s origins can be traced back to an RCC student who was working in the grants department when they discovered the grant. RCC decided to apply and was awarded $15 million for the five-year study which benefits students even as it collects data about their progress (or, in some cases, lack thereof). A one-year extension was recently approved, so the grant won’t expire until September of 2021.

“So it’s actually a study,” Parks said, “that is looking to see and answer the question: if folks who are targeted low-income understand the opportunities and have the opportunities, can those folks come in and get trained in health care and meet the industry demands while starting a career pathway over time that includes a living-wage job?”

According to Parks, two out of every three people who apply for the program are randomly selected to receive its benefits — the grant covers tuition, books, fees and supplies to receive a health care certification — while the other one lands in the control group.

“And that just means that they’re not benefiting from the grant but they are part of the larger federal study,” Parks said.

The programs take a year or less to complete, and SOHOPE also covers the cost of earning a GED for students who need that prior to beginning their training.

RCC’s data suggest the answer to Parks’ question is yes. According to the college, of the 733 SOHOPE participants, 547 have completed at least one health care certification, and 319 are employed in regional health care thanks in part to SOHOPE.

The updated number would be 320 counting Bible, 24, who was led to SOHOPE by Redemption Ridge, an organization whose mission is to “provide healing and restoration to female victims of commercial domestic sex trafficking.” Bible interviewed for the study and received the good news that she had been accepted a week later.

“It was huge,” she said. “It was a big thing for me just because without it I wouldn’t have been able to go to college. Having to pay for so much — the classes, the tuition — I wouldn’t have been able to ... even think about getting in there. So SOHOPE was a big blessing.”

Bible, who attended RCC’s Medford campus, said the program proved to be a life-changer in part because its supports went far beyond the finances. She commuted to Medford from Trail, and during one cold snap the pipes in her trailer froze and burst.

“I called one of the ladies,” Bible said, “and I was balling — ‘I don’t know if I can come to school tomorrow.’ And she’s like, ‘No, let’s just breathe, here we go,’ and they just helped immensely.”

Bible said Parks and Adult Basic Skills department Chair Julie Rossi did everything they could to help Bible get through it. Bible’s instructor also pitched in.

“She gave me a rug so we could put it on the floor after we tried to get everything all dried up,” Bible said. “We had a bare floor, and I had a little toddler running around. It wasn’t safe. So she gave me her rug that she was getting rid of just so I could put it on the ground and my son could have something to play on. So it’s not only an amazing program; it’s like a family.”

Bible turned in her last assignment to complete her medical assistant certification last week, interviewed for a job Monday and was hired Wednesday.

Stories like that support the findings RCC expressed in the “lessons learned” section of its Bellwether submission.

“We have learned several lessons that contribute to replication,” it read. “First, providing supports to help students navigate new systems, while addressing internal and external barriers that keep students from success, has been found to be key. Many participants come from a background that has kept them from feeling successful or confident about reaching their educational goals. Many experience life challenges that threaten their ability to finish training.”

The submission also singled out the importance of leveraging community partnerships, which include the Department of Human Services, Asante, Providence, La Clinica and WorkSource Rogue Valley (Bible’s new job, in fact, is with Asante).

Parks said once the program expires next fall, the hope is that RCC will be able to find creative ways to continue to pour into the low-income population.

“So what we’re doing right now in this last year is taking all the data and everything that we’ve learned and know to be true and what we’ve created, and we’re trying to create sustainability,” she said. “So that once the money goes away that we can pay forward everything that we’ve learned in working with students, because our population in SOHOPE is not different than a typical community college student, in reality.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Rogue Community College was recently named a finalist for the Bellwether Award. (photo courtesy of Rogue Community College)