TAMPA PALMS — Jessica Bartels has already beaten the odds.
Armed with a 3.63 GPA, the associate degree she earned from Hillsborough Community College in May and a $1,000 scholarship she recently received from the Tampa Palms Women’s Club, she’s headed to the University of South Florida in the fall as a junior with a double major in mass communications and communications.
Bartels, who didn’t graduate from high school but later received a GED, has aspirations of a future career in the news media field.
According to American RadioWorks, a national documentary unit of American Public Media, fewer than 10 percent of people who get their GEDs go on to earn associate degrees from community colleges.
“I am the first person in my family to receive an associate’s degree,” said the 27-year-old Sulphur Springs resident.
Bartels was raised in a family in which both of her parents were drug addicts. Her father wasn’t around most of the time, she said, but when he was he was abusive. As a result, she received little parental guidance related to her educational path or life in general.
As a “young and in love” unwed teenager she became pregnant with her first daughter, now 8, to a man who also fathered her two other daughters, ages 4 and 2.
“I was working full time for minimum wage as a housekeeper at Florida Hospital (Tampa) when I was pregnant with my second child and I knew I would be doomed to a life of failure if I did not get an education,” Bartels said.
Shortly after that daughter’s birth, she enrolled at HCC and during her time there her third baby was born with heart disease that required surgery. She chose to take online classes for a while rather than drop out of school.
She admits it has not been easy juggling all her responsibilities and commitments, which also include collecting clothing and blankets by way of a group she founded and operates mainly through social media networks titled, Tampa Helping the Homeless.
“I go to school full time, I work part time and I struggle to pay my bills every month,” Bartels said. “I have raked in thousands of dollars’ worth of student loans just to pay my rent.”
The scholarship she received is one that has been funded annually by the women’s club but determined by USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy since 2009. Bartels was selected as this year’s recipient from among a field of 38 applicants.
It is open to junior and senior class students on the USF Tampa campus who are at least 24 years old and are residents of either Hillsborough or Pasco County. Their GPAs must be 3.0 or above and the money is to be used for tuition and/or books.
“I was very, very happy to be awarded the scholarship,” said Bartels, who noted she’d previously applied for every scholarship she could without success.
“I thought the donors may have seen me as a financial risk, but the truth is that it is the greatest investment in the future of my family,” she said. “It’s a great feeling to know that somebody else believes in me as well.”
India Witte, USF WLP executive director, said Bartels’ application and supportive comments by others were impressive.
“Jessica had wonderful recommendation letters which spoke about her dedicated work in the classroom and her participation in volunteer activities while also raising three children on her own,” she said.
In Tampa Palms Women’s Club President Mary Harvey’s opinion, the scholarship is one of the most important contributions her club makes each year.
“We place a great deal of emphasis on education,” she said.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]