Helping students SOAR

February 1, 2021

SOAR Program Director Ellen Judge-Gonzalez is honored with the University of Michigan Sarah Goddard Power Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the betterment of women through leadership.

Graphic featuring SOAR Program Director Ellen-Judge Gonzalez

Ellen Judge-Gonzalez says there’s a myth that adult learners only come to college for the degree and leave campus or log off the laptop as soon as class is done. But she knows that’s not true because she was one herself — and she continues to see the dedication nontraditional students put forth.

Judge-Gonzalez, UM-Dearborn’s Support, Opportunities, Advocacy and Resources (SOAR) Program director, spends every day — even on the weekends at times — talking with her SOAR students about their hopes, dreams and career goals. The SOAR Program is for returning adult students who are parents, veterans or ages 25 and older — the average age is currently 38 — and seeking their first bachelor’s degree. 

Judge-Gonazlez’s SOAR students tell her about their interest in performing research, their curiosity about graduate schools, the new job almost within their reach, and the confidence that’s grown with every credit closer to graduation. She has run the SOAR Program since 2009.

“These are students who want deep, enriching learning experiences relevant to their post-graduation goals. They are here and dedicated — they juggle sick kids, aging parents, many sleepless nights — because they understand how a degree can change their lives,” says Judge-Gonzalez, who returned to college as a 28-year-old mother of two. “If they are going to put in the work, the SOAR Program and our fantastic SOAR Advisory Board are going to connect them to opportunities to grow on campus and do whatever we can to remove any obstacles that might get in the way.”

Photo of Sarah Power Goddard

It’s this attitude that put a spotlight on Judge-Gonzalez, who was recently named a University of Michigan Sarah Goddard Power Distinguished Service Award winner. Named after the late University of Michigan Regent Sarah Goddard Power, the honor recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the betterment of women through their leadership, scholarship or other ways in their professional life.

The award, given by the U-M Academic Women’s Caucus, will be presented to Judge-Gonzalez virtually Feb. 10.

“What this award says is the U-M values the work we do in SOAR and recognizes the impact that it has on students,” she says. “We, as a university community, are involved in creating and providing high-impact practices that we know drive our students' success. It’s really nice to be awarded and have the community we built recognized.”

College-wide Programs Associate Professor Lisa Martin, who works with Judge-Gonzalez and her SOAR students, nominated her friend and colleague for the award.

“She truly embodies the spirit of Sarah Power in that for Ellen, failure is impossible when it comes to championing students in their goals of achieving academic and personal success. She truly embodies the values of opening the educational system up for students who have faced significant life challenges and gaps in their education.”

Judge-Gonzalez’s students — most of whom earn their bachelor’s and more — share how instrumental Judge-Gonazlez was to earning their diploma with stories . on how she introduced them to the right campus research opportunity, steered them to scholarships when they were financially struggling, and encouraged them to find their place on campus.

2017 graduate Salemah Morris, who started college as a single parent in her 30s, says Judge-Gonzalez inspired her to get involved. “I found so many people on this campus ready to help me not only reach my goal, but to also find my voice,” Morris says. “It got to a point where I just knew I was in the right place—a place that would help me make an impact on a larger level. And I would not deviate from the path, no matter how difficult things got. And it started with Ellen.”

Integrative Studies major Tara Nelson, who will graduate in April, says Judge-Gonzalez is special because she leads by example. “Ellen doesn't just teach us textbook material or how to network. She shows us how to be a part of the University of Michigan family. The SOAR students couldn't ask for a better leader, guide or academic challenger. Ellen is humble and enthusiastic. She exemplifies strength, determination, confidence, compassion, wisdom  — and what leadership looks like.”

Photo of SOAR Director Ellen Judge-Gonzalez

Anyone who knows Judge-Gonzalez sees the strong bond she has with her students. Due to the pandemic, she can no longer hear their conversations over coffee in the SOAR office, so Judge-Gonzalez and SOAR assistant Becky Richardson host virtual coffee chat check-ins. Judge-Gonzalez teaches courses that many of her students take. She’s got the right balance of no-nonsense and understanding that sometimes “life happens.”

“It never fails — if  you have a final in the morning, your kid is going to wake up puking with a 104-degree fever. I’ve been there,” she says. “When working with my students, I do put myself in their shoes and try to remember what it was like when I returned to college.”

Judge-Gonzalez had young children when she attended UM-Dearborn to earn her undergraduate degree. To make things work, she brought her toddler to campus, stayed up late and got up early. The goal was to complete her degree, and find a place where she belonged. 

Judge-Gonzalez found that through research and collaborative work with faculty mentors like Psychology Professor Emeritus John Kotre  and Psychology Professors Marie Waung and Nancy Wrobel — sometimes just chatting about goals and family life.  “That had an effect on me. I learned so much about myself and I learned from so many wonderful people, too many to list all, through the support and opportunities presented to me at UM-Dearborn.”

She knows that a welcoming place is key to success — and now she works to cultivate that support system for others.

“Age and circumstances do not change your desire to make an impact or to learn something new. Actually, I think time and responsibility makes you and your drive to reach goals stronger,” she says. “We want to let our students know that the opportunity is here and so is a supportive community who guide you and walk alongside you as you work toward that degree.”