My GRCC Story: Ashley Venbennekom uses Michigan Reconnect to gain career skills while managing family and small business

Ashley Vanbennekom smiling.

Ashley Vanbennekom has advice for young parents dreaming of a college degree.

“Don’t be afraid to go get it — anytime, anywhere or in any season of your life,” said Vanbennekom, a 32-year-old mother of three pursuing an interior design degree at Grand Rapids Community College thanks to a Michigan Reconnect scholarship.

Tuition-free programs like Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners have been popular for West Michigan adult learners. During the Winter 2022 semester, 21% of GRCC students — 2,385 out of 11,383 –– were enrolled in the state scholarship programs, which cover the cost of in-district tuition.

Michigan Reconnect is the largest effort in state history to ensure that Michiganders who are 25 or older and don’t have a college degree have an opportunity to earn an associate degree or skills certificate with free or deeply discounted tuition.

Since its launch in February 2021, nearly 93,000 state residents have been accepted into the program. To date, 54 Reconnecters have graduated from GRCC.

Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners are among the tools the state is using to achieve Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “60 by 30 goal,” which aims to prepare Michiganders for in-demand jobs and bigger paychecks by increasing the number of adults with a postsecondary degree or credential to 60% by 2030.

Whitmer highlighted GRCC students in a Wednesday release.

“Our goal is to build a better Michigan where every Michigander is equipped with the education and skills they need to get a good-paying job, and the Michigan Reconnect students at Grand Rapids Community College are on their way to high-demand, high-wage careers,” she said.

According to recent employment projections, nearly 530,000 jobs in professional trades fields alone will be available in Michigan through 2028. It’s estimated that nearly half those jobs will require postsecondary education.

A growing number of older, nontraditional adult learners are heading to college classrooms – many for the first time. GRCC reported a 14% enrollment increase in students ages 30 and older, like Vanbennekom, compared to pre-pandemic enrollment levels.

“More Michiganders are earning, or within reach of earning, a college degree or skills certificate thanks to efforts like Michigan Reconnect,” said Susan Corbin, director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. “We are creating new paths for fulfilling careers for our workers and opportunities for our Michigan businesses to fill critical talent needs so they can continue to compete, grow and innovate.”

Vanbennekom decided to start a furniture refurbishing business after she and her husband, Matt, began renovating a historic home in Fulton Heights. She dreamed of getting an interior design degree but was unsure how they’d afford tuition while raising three children, ages 2, 7 and 8.

Reconnect, GRCC’s online courses and GRCC daycare for her 2-year-old son gave her the freedom to pursue that dream.

“I was amazed when I got a 4.0 and was on the President’s List my first semester at GRCC while juggling it all,” she said. “I work incredibly hard to balance it all.”

GRCC President Bill Pink said it’s the college’s mission to prepare people like Vanbennekom to attain their goals and contribute to the community.

“This is achieved by providing students with the skills and education that can lead to good careers and enriched lives,” Pink said. “We look forward to continued collaboration with our regional and state partners to provide pathways to success for our region’s students, workers and businesses.”

Vanbennekom said there are many nontraditional students like her pursuing their dreams at GRCC.

“When you really put your mind to something and you really want it, you can make it happen at any age,” she said.

Additional information about how the Michigan Reconnect program can help students start and restart their college education and change their life is at grcc.edu/reconnect, and by emailing reconnect@grcc.edu or calling (616) 234-3366.

This story was reported by Beth McKenna.

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