Brenda Anderson, at left, and Teresa Rogers-Johnson, center, have both served as mentors in East Mississippi Community College’s EMPOWR program, which is dedicated to keeping nontraditional women students from dropping out. They are pictured here with EMCC EMPOWR Coordinator Michele Arney at right. The program will be offered at both the Scooba and Golden Triangle campuses for the next two years. (Courtesy photo)

MAYHEW — A program in which female sophomore students serve as mentors to their at-risk freshmen counterparts will continue for another two years at East Mississippi Community College’s Golden Triangle campus and will be introduced for the first time at the college’s Scooba campus. Jackson-based Women’s Foundation of Mississippi has announced the award of a $50,000 grant to fund the Empowering Mentors to Promote Women’s Retention (EMPOWR) program at EMCC through the 2018-19 school year.

EMPOWR began as a pilot program at EMCC’s Golden Triangle campus after the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi commissioned in 2013 researchers at Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center (SSRC) to investigate the needs of female community college students.  What researchers discovered was that many nontraditional female students struggled with attending school while juggling jobs and the demands of raising a family. A recent study cited by the SSRC revealed that 44 percent of women attending community college in Mississippi are employed and that 31 percent have children. Many experience a sense of isolation, according to the study.  SSRC, which partnered with EMCC to implement the EMPOWR program, is now looking at expanding it to other colleges in the state.

In the program, freshmen, or mentees, are paired with sophomores who serve as their mentors. Participants are required to meet with their mentors at least one hour per week. In addition, mentors and mentees attend monthly meetings called enhancement sessions that include guest speakers who address topics such as stress and time management, health and wellness, financial management and career development. The grant will allow the program to offer more enhancement sessions. “The number one goal of the program is to retain these students,” EMCC EMPOWR Coordinator Michele Arney said. “A second goal is to help them feel competent as a student and connected and secure while they are on campus.”

Starkville resident Brenda Anderson, 50, graduated from EMCC in May with an Associate’s Degree in Liberal Arts. Anderson was close to dropping out during her freshmen year when she was introduced to the EMPOWR program. “I felt like I was alone and that I didn’t have a support system,” Anderson said. “EMPOWR opened up doors for me to meet other women like myself. When I realized there was a group of women who cared about me completing my education, that inspired me to not only complete my education but to do my best.”

This past year, Anderson served as a mentor in the EMPOWR program. She plans to enroll at Mississippi State University to pursue a degree in sociology or psychology. Starkville resident Teresa Rogers-Johnson, 44, a hair dresser for the past 25 years, also found the support she needed in the EMPOWR program. She always wanted to return to school to earn an instructor’s license so she could teach cosmetology. Last year, she enrolled at EMCC.   “I was so afraid,” Rogers-Johnson said. “I had not stepped on a school campus since I graduated from Starkville High School in 1991.”

Rogers-Johnson entered the EMPOWR program, in which she served as both a mentee and mentor. The program gave her the confidence to overcome her fears about college and she is now considering changing her field of study.  “EMPOWR helped me to understand that I am not just a hairdresser,” Rogers-Johnson said. “Now I am torn between getting my instructor’s license or going on and getting a degree in something else. I feel like I was set up in life for one thing but something else greater is coming.”

Data collected through the DropGuard Early Alert System that tracks absences and low test grades is used to identify participants in the program, which has grown from 10 mentors and 10 mentees in 2014 to a combined total of 35 mentors and mentees this past school year. Some sophomores mentor two freshmen.  “We are budgeted for 20 mentors and 20 mentees on the Golden Triangle campus this next year and will begin with 10 mentors and 10 mentees on the Scooba campus this year,” Arney said. Mentees receive a college credit in Personal Growth & Affirmation for participating in EMPOWR and mentors are granted a $600 stipend they can use to help pay for college textbooks.

The program has been a success, Arney said, in that almost all of the participants have stayed in school and improved their grade point averages. She said the response from the participants had been great. “They love the program,” Arney said. “The freshmen from last year are knocking down my door right now to sign up as mentors.” Email Arney at for more information about the EMPOWR program.