Paving the Path: How UW-Waukesha and Professor Ellyn Lem are helping low income women find the path to higher education

It’s difficult to blame someone for being dubious when they see the words, “Free College Credit” plastered on handouts in local shelters. That incredulous reaction is what Dr. Ellyn Lem supposes runs through people’s minds when they see her promotional material for UW-Waukesha’s “Paving the Path” program, a college-level course running four Saturdays in the summer. The goal is to provide low-income adults with an introduction to higher education.

The program is all-encompassing, providing college credit, coursework, books, meals and a snippet of the on-campus experience. It’s designed to usher people from the summer classes into classrooms in the fall. It’s modeled after a similar program, The Odyssey Project, at UW-Madison.

“They [UW-Madison] made a movie and showed it to our whole campus a few years ago,” Lem said. “My first thought was, ‘Wow, we should do that,’ and if it was just me alone I don’t know if I would have pursued it but there were a lot of people that were excited about it.”

Lem was already intimately tied to many community-related activities and serves as coordinator for veteran services, so she felt uniquely qualified to lead the program. Despite the obvious benefits, finding participants remained a challenge, and Lem found the best route was often approaching people and explaining the benefits in-person.

“Recruitment is really hard. What works the best is just “hand-selling,” Lem said. “I have brochures and applications at below income dental clinics, food pantries, libraries, like 10-15 places…but the people we’ve really gotten have been because of the face to face meetings with individuals.”

Lem has found that many of the students involved have never been told they’re college material. Paving the Path is meant to ignite or rekindle that flame within these students.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that it is a big confidence issue,” says Lem. “I want to show them that college can be for almost anyone and bring out skills they may not have known that they had.”

The desire to inspire potential students is what drives Lem and others to keep the program going. That, and the faculty support she receives each summer; faculty essentially donate their time. Lem scraped together enough money to pay them about $100 dollars last summer, but most didn’t even want it.

Professors would even come to sessions when it wasn’t their time to teach so they could maintain contact with students and enlighten themselves on a different subject. They’re as committed to changing lives as the students enrolled, and they want students to emerge with more than just the ability to discuss Plato’s philosophies.

“One of the neat things students have said is how the education changes other aspects of their life,” Lem says. “One of the students got a job for Apple and she said she never would have applied had she not taken this class. She didn’t go on for more school, and although one of our main intents is for them to take more education, I think there’s a lot of different ways that people benefit.”

Moving forward, growing the program remains difficult. Lem admits they can’t actively promote the program, but she’s encouraged with how effectively word has spread. Unlike years past when she went door-to-door, people are now coming to her to ask about the program. She hopes increased awareness can help them expand.

A primary future goal is creating remote sites in Milwaukee, to help alleviate the issue of city residents traveling to Waukesha. Any expansion is dependent on finances though, and although Lem has applied for grants to help cover the numerous costs associated with the program, those are usually only enough to cover the current iteration of Paving the Path.

“Slowly but surely it’s going up,” says Lem. “It’s not at that point where we’re turning people away.”

The program may be ascending slowly, but due to Lem and Waukesha faculty, the path forward for these students looks far clearer than ever before.