By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Twelve years ago, College Possible Milwaukee began. Its mission was this: help students from low-income backgrounds achieve their dreams of attending college. In its first year, College Possible Milwaukee partnered with three schools and worked with 53 juniors. Since then, the organization has continued to spread its mission throughout Milwaukee.
College Possible Milwaukee recently announced Kellie Sigh as executive director. Prior to being named as executive director, Sigh worked for Milwaukee Public Schools as the director of strategic partnerships and customer service.
She said that her experience at MPS and her role as a mother have prepared for her new position with College Possible. She’s worked with both private and public-school sectors and has over 25 years of experience.
“Working in the education space has prepared me well,” Sigh said.
During her time at MPS, Sigh’s responsibilities included engaging with families and forging relationships with key partners. She hopes to continue some of those partnerships through her work at College Possible.
Sigh recalled hearing about College Possible Milwaukee sometime within the last 10 years. At the time, she had been serving on a board, when a member mentioned the organization and its mission.
“I remember being impressed by the mission,” she said. “The mission spoke to me in a significant way.”
The organization’s focus is to walk alongside these scholars and not only help them go to college but to help them identify their dreams and goals. The fact that the group strives to walk alongside scholars instead of simply guiding them, stuck with Sigh.
When a recruiter reached out to see if she was interested in the executive director position, Sigh took the call. Although she was happy at MPS, hearing that College Possible wanted to diversify its leadership to better represent the population it served peaked Sigh’s interest.
Over 90% of College Possible Milwaukee students are students of color according to the organization’s 2019-2020 impact report.
When she realized she would have the opportunity to have a direct impact on scholars on their path to college, she threw her hat in the ring.
Being named executive director in the midst of a pandemic has placed Sigh in uncharted territories. While the College Possible team was really good at transferring from an in-person to virtual environment, not everything has been smooth sailing.
Like many students around the globe, College Possible scholars are struggling to adapt to this new normal. Scholars have articulated that virtual learning is challenge, Sigh said.
Trying to navigate virtual school and spending unprecedented screen time and worrying about keeping up, has increased anxiety, Sigh noted. The lack of social opportunities especially for college students has hindered personal connections. Furthermore, campus jobs are being limited and everyone fears encountering an outbreak.
Fortunately for College Possible scholars, they are not alone. As part of its program, scholars are partnered with a near-peer coach, a recent college graduate who acts as a guide and soundboard for high school and college scholars.
The coaches help the scholars troubleshoot and problem solve, Sigh said. From helping them with study techniques to reaching out to a professor, the coaches are present.
“They [coaches] provide that social and emotional piece,” she explained.
Right now, there are 38 coaches and one-third of them are College Possible graduates who have come back to serve. That says something about the program, Sigh noted.
Aside from the challenge of a virtual environment, the pandemic has also affected funding. Funders’ focus changed to providing basic needs for the community, Sigh said. The struggle has been to help people understand that College Possible is still relevant, she said.
In spite of the challenges, Sigh considered each student who has obtained their goal of going to college a triumph. According to its impact report, College Possible students are three times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. The report found that 93% of high school seniors were admitted to college and 75% went on to their second year.
Looking ahead, Sigh’s goals include building partnerships, growing brand awareness, creating relationships with HBCUs, securing more donors, expanding and improving programming and of course, increasing its scholars.
Closing the degree divide isn’t just the work of one organization. Colleges and universities need to take a look at their policies and practices, Sigh said. Is the staff diverse, do people feel a sense of belonging, do scholars have the support they need – these are the questions higher education entities need to ask themselves.
“There has to be a converted ongoing effort,” she said, adding that everyone needs to understand where they need to make changes and where they need to eradicate systemic structures.
College Possible is still accepting applications for the 2020-2021 school year. Students must have a GPA of at least 2.0 and attend MPS. If interested, students are encouraged to contact their guidance counselor or school rep. For additional information, go to collegepossible.org/Milwaukee/.