SOAR celebrates 20 years

November 12, 2018

The nontraditional student support program celebrates two decades by bringing SOAR alumni, students, faculty and staff together.

 SOAR alumna Leticia Rangel at SOAR 20th anniversary event
SOAR alumna Leticia Rangel at SOAR 20th anniversary event

Leticia Rangel has decades of work experience. A love for working with children. And a fierce dedication for the southwest Detroit community where she grew up and now lives and works.

Rangel (’17 B.A.) is the Clippert Multicultural Honors Academy dean of culture, a senior administration role in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Hearing her talk passionately about her neighborhood and the importance of education, Rangel seems like a natural fit.

“This is my home community. It’s where my brothers and sisters — there are six of us — grew up. And so many families of people we knew are still here. We get to see their children and their children’s children grow up,” she said. “I see my office at school as a home extension. I am blessed to have a job like that.”

Rangel then acknowledges the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s SOAR Program, which she credits for helping her earn the education that connected her interests to that right job.

“I needed that degree to get the position I have today. It took me seven years to finish college and I thank the SOAR Program for backing me every step of the way,” said Rangel, who shared that SOAR staff hosted scholarship writing workshops, loaned out laptops, read through research papers, listened and advised, and connected program participants to needed resources.

“The people in SOAR believed in me and showed me the importance of having faith in yourself. I was raising a son and had life challenges and financial struggles. I was just trying to hold on. I wasn't sure if college was right for me. But the SOAR Program showed me that it was, that it’s never too late to be who you are supposed to be.”

Celebrating those personal and professional successes, Rangel was one of nearly 120 people who attended the SOAR 20th Anniversary event on Oct. 25.

The College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters SOAR — Support, Opportunities, Advocacy and Resources for Nontraditional Students — Program has evolved over the years in name and reach, but the mission has remained the same: To increase access to post-secondary education for nontraditional adult learners experiencing socioeconomic challenges. And it gets students to graduation. The program’s retention rate is more than 85 percent.

 SOAR 20th anniversary event
SOAR 20th anniversary event

Among the people speaking at this reunion-style event were Nancy Lemkie, program founder; Beverly Alexander (’02 B.A.), one of the first SOAR graduates; and Ellen Judge-Gonzalez (’95 B.A.), SOAR program director.

“Twenty years is significant. It’s important to look at the people who are in this family circle and acknowledge their care, concern, understanding and accomplishments,” said Judge-Gonzalez, a UM-Dearborn graduate who also returned to school as an adult learner. “The personal stories shared remind us that we have the power and ability to write our own stories too. And the SOAR family is here to listen, support and guide.”

In addition to conversations and speeches, two major gifts were recognized. A scholarship named in Lemkie’s honor was awarded to its first recipient, SOAR student Ahqam Algalham. And a $10,000 donation was given from late chemistry lecturer Angela Allen’s estate; it will be applied to upgrading technological and supply needs of SOAR students.

Senior Elissa Gonzalez, a communication major with a concentration in public relations and a minor in women’s and gender studies, also spoke at the event. She said the family-like supportive environment was apparent at the event, just like it is in the SOAR office.

Gonzalez, who went back to school three years ago to make a better life for her children, said the SOAR spirit has helped encourage her through juggling adult responsibilities — jobs, children, family struggles — on top of earning her degree.

“SOAR is inspirational; it’s inspirational because of the people. Sometimes in the day-to-day of life, you feel like you can’t get through because of a setback — your car breaks down, kids are sick, you lose hours at your job. But then you look around you and see all of these people who are also fighting challenging situations so that they can emerge on the other side and make a better life for themselves and their families,” she said.

“Education is a powerful thing. When good, strong people come together in support of each other claiming an education, that’s motivational and uplifting. It’s a reminder that I can do this; we can do this.”

Rangel knows the inspirational spirit of the program well. Now a year past graduation, she said she’s living and loving the blessings of her hard work every day. Rangel also shared that she’s set new professional goals for herself — to go to graduate school and to serve on the SOAR Advisory Board.

“My life is amazing because of SOAR. My degree tells me I’m on my way and that there is no limit to what I can achieve. I’m currently looking at master’s degree programs,” Rangel said. “I want to help others like SOAR has helped me. I remember meeting members of the SOAR board when I was a student and thinking, ‘One day I’m going to be just like them; I’ll be sitting at that table.’ Because they believed in the program, my life is forever changed. And I want to do that for someone else."