MiLEAP hurdles college barriers

Published 9:00 am Monday, April 4, 2022

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DOWAGIAC — Southwestern Michigan College students can qualify for financial assistance and support services through Michigan Works’ on-campus “navigator,” Jenni Leich.

Michigan Works! Berrien, Cass, Van Buren last July received a two-year, $2 million Michigan Learning and Education Advancement Program grant from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to respond to COVID-19’s economic impact by helping job seekers gain employment skills.

The initiative was created to provide hurdle-clearing, short-term education/training opportunities and supportive services to 670 individuals throughout the three counties.

Career navigators such as Leich, who has an office in the Academic Advising and Resource Center (AARC) of the David C. Briegel Building, help participants set career goals and identify relevant education and training opportunities for one-year certificates or two-year associate degrees.

Leich worked with Michigan Works! for 10 years starting in 2001 in Berrien and in St. Joseph County, Mich., and for the state Department of Health and Human Services in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties from June 2011 until last August, when she returned to join MiLEAP.

Though she just finished a virtual appointment with a Mississippi student, “The majority I have out-of-state are from Indiana, primarily South Bend and Elkhart, and students from other parts of Michigan —Detroit area, Kalamazoo and Three Rivers/Sturgis,” Leich said.

Forty-seven short-term educational opportunities have been identified for MiLEAP participation to spur advancement to high-wage, in-demand careers without saddling themselves with educational debt: accounting, business, computer information systems, graphic design tech, industrial technology (IT), IT help desk, IT networking, IT system administrator, office assistant/specialist, management/entrepreneur, automation, automotive tech, construction trades, engineering tech, machine tool tech, mechatronics tech, robotics, skilled trades tech, welding tech, certified nursing assistant (CNA), dental assistant, sonography, ECG tech, EMT, health IT, health science, medical assistant, MRI tech, neurodiagnostic tech, nursing, pharmacy tech, phlebotomy tech, radiology tech, child development, criminal justice, culinary management, early childhood education, fire science, hospitality, social work, sports management, teacher education, tribal leadership, wine/viticulture tech, agricultural business and agricultural tech.

Prospective participants must possess a high school equivalency to receive MiLEAP services. Eligible participants are assessed to receive support services to address unmet needs, such as housing/rental, child care assistance, books, transportation/auto repairs — insurance, driver’s license, mileage reimbursements (such as medical students traveling to clinicals), work-related clothing, payment assistance for tests/permits, technology support (laptops/wi-fi hotspots) and “last- dollar” tuition.

Leich works closely with her next-door AARC neighbor, Career Development Manager Melinda Kedik-Stockwell; Career and Technical Resource Coordinator Juliet Anderson, who focuses on CTE students in occupational programs from the Barbara Wood Building; and Manager of Workforce Development Megan Kupres for Michigan Reconnect in Dowagiac (Office of First-Year Experience) and Niles.

Such programs help Michigan continue driving toward its Sixty by Thirty goal of 60-percent of the working-age population possessing a postsecondary degree or skills training by 2030.

“I do a lot of my own recruiting, talking to students about their majors, passing out fliers, like I did last week outside FYE, and talking to teachers and the athletic department,” Leich said. “I’ve talked to welding, construction and robotics classes. I was at the open house and Campus Bash. I also find them through referrals from advisers in financial aid and the business office.

“I tell everyone I talk to that I don’t want anyone to vet the person to see if they qualify. That’s for me to do. I have so many resources that if they don’t qualify for (MiLEAP, capped at $3,000), we have other Michigan Works! Programs.”

The MiLEAP grant ends June 30, 2023, unless strong results extend it.

“Certificate programs are my primary focus,” Leich said, “because they can get completed by June 30, 2023.”

“A huge hit with nursing students last semester was help with their NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) prep and applications for their licenses,” Leich said. “A lot of students are coming to me for summer tuition because financial aid won’t cover it because they’re not taking enough credits, or they’ve maxed out their Pell grant for the year. The 180-day (nursing) practice test costs $299, which allows them one reset. The application for their license costs $208.”

Leich works on the Dowagiac campus Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, with Tuesdays at the Niles campus and Fridays virtually from home in Niles.

Michigan Works! specializes in educating, training and employing individuals of all ages. They work with local businesses to help tackle the most pressing challenges, including attracting and retaining talent. For more information, visit