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Once a wayward teen, now a teen case manager – thanks to help from VSAC

Written by
Stephen Mease

January 25, 2022


Karen McGovern, a counselor with VSAC’s Educational Opportunity Center (EOC), has worked with many adult Vermonters who want to go back to school to earn a needed credential or college degree. One student, in particular, Joanne Saunders of Fairfax, stands out.

“When I first met Joanne about 12 years ago, she was nearing the end of her high school program in an alternative setting at Vermont Adult Learning,” McGovern recalls. “She was a young single mom trying to find her way.”

Joanne Saunders“My high school experience was typical,” says Joanne, who attended BFA Fairfax from kindergarten through 12th grade. “I was ready to be done, and I thought anything else would be better than school.”

She was the youngest of three children, and she recalls, the most rebellious. “We were all sort of free-range children, and I just followed my older siblings. I was a little rebel.” There were times when she refused to go to school, she recalls, and “did things that were not okay.”

Joanne got pregnant as a high school junior and had her son the summer before senior year. “Finishing school with him was a challenge,” she admits. And then she struggled to figure out how to make enough money to support herself and her son. She worked as a meat wrapper, worked at a local warehouse, and ran the bookmobile for the America Reads and AmeriCorps VISTA program. But it was what she did on her own time — mentoring kids who were getting in trouble — that brought her joy.

“I’ve always liked teens. People are sometimes scared of them, but I like to find ways to relate to them and connect with them on their level. I’m an adult, but sometimes I don’t act like it,” Joanne laughs. “My favorite thing to do is to make the connection with my clients, to let them know I really am trustworthy, and I don’t have a hidden agenda. Some of them just need to know there’s an adult who isn’t ‘obligated’ to care about them, but who does anyway. From there, I can help them start to make positive decisions.” 

“When I look back, I’ve done this work with friends for a long time,” she says.

But to make her calling a career, Joanne needed a college degree — a realization that made her rethink the anti-college mantra she had embraced back in high school.  

“I always thought college was stupid. I would tell anyone who listened that people were stupid to pay to go to school. It’s funny to look back now. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I didn’t see a reason for it.”

But, five or six years after high school, Joanne found herself calling Community College of Vermont. “I didn’t think it was possible because I wasn’t a traditional student,” she recalls. She also needed some help navigating a wholly unfamiliar world. While a few family members had taken college classes, “college was never a family dinner topic,” she says. “My parents didn’t go to college, and my mom didn’t even finish high school.”

“I had to go to school to learn how the college system works, from the financial parts to the academic programs. I had to learn it all at the same time.” Here, the EOC — and Karen — were a valuable resource.  

“Having Karen to direct me, and then nominate me for things, was so helpful,” Joanne says. “I didn’t necessarily recognize it at the time, but now I realize Karen went out of her way to say, ‘this person deserves to have that grant or this extra program,’ and I appreciate it even more now.”

Though Joanne admits she initially struggled with a tendency to procrastinate, she also realized that she could be a good student when she applied herself. “When I wanted to be there, I got As and Bs,” she says.

She got her bachelor’s degree from Champlain College in 2016. Now she’s an adolescent case manager at NCSS, a role she’s held, either at her current agency or with the Howard Center, since 2015. “I help teens learn to adult,” she explains, working with them on skills like applying for jobs, budgeting, time management, and communication. Clients are referred to her through schools, counselors, doctors’ offices, and sometimes through their parents.

Joanne’s former VSAC counselor, Karen McGovern, smiles at the way Joanne’s story has come full circle. “She is a fierce advocate for her clients. And the best part is that she refers many of them to me!” she laughs.

When it comes to advising her young clients about their future, Joanne starts by getting curious about what they enjoy. “I help them figure out what kinds of jobs they might relate to. While nobody ever has to go to college, if it makes sense for what they want to do, then I help them look into it and ask questions.”

She also wants to make sure her clients feel supported and taken seriously. “It can be hard to step outside of your socioeconomic circle,” Joanne reflects. “It’s almost like facing peer pressure.” She says that once she got onto the college and professional path, it became a point of contention with family and friends, who often ridiculed her for “working in an office” and having a “fancy degree.” Having had this experience herself, she says, she is always mindful to encourage young people who don’t have that support and context at home, and to connect them with the resources they need to succeed.

“I’ve referred two or three of my clients to work with Karen. I told them that I used to rely on Karen, and I’ve shared my own example. I think it’s helpful for the teens I work with to know that even I — someone they look up to — at one time needed people around me to tell me what I was supposed to be doing.”

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