FRANKLIN, Ind. (AP) — Thanks to a fight he never should have gotten involved in, between people he says he shouldn’t have been around, Antranik Askander landed in the hospital with a busted-up face.
Call it his transformative moment: If he had put himself in a better position in life, he told himself, he never would have been near that fight.
He was a college dropout with a good heart — too good a heart, his mother says — hanging around friends who he knew made bad decisions. That’s how he ended up with a fistful of brass knuckles to his face, trying to barter peace with a bunch of bullies.
“It just really bothered me,” he told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1v4NNcZ ). “I didn’t want to end up in situations like that again.”
He was a pizza deliveryman whose parents never went to college, but he wanted more for himself.
It’s not that simple, though, to just decide to get a degree. First he needed to afford both the classes and the gas to get there. Then he did all the things that make education officials fret: He dropped classes and took on a lot of debt.
This fall, as he entered his sixth year of college and neared $55,000 in student loans, Askander received an intriguing offer for a $5,000 grant from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
The catch: He had to finish his degree this year — or he would have to pay back the money.
In 2005, Askander graduated from Franklin Central High School and enrolled right away at Ivy Tech Community College.
“I tried to pay for that all out of pocket. I didn’t even have loans for that,” he said. “I ended up dropping all my classes.”
Even after he stopped going, he said he still owed $1,800 to Ivy Tech for his failed attempt at college.
Askander got a job at Pizza Hut, joining the two-thirds of Hoosier adults who don’t have an education beyond high school.
About one in five of the state’s residents have tried college but didn’t finish, according to the Lumina Foundation — likely still taking on debt without having a degree to show for it.
Askander, 29, says his parents never pushed him toward a degree, only wanting him to find a stable job. His mom restores art. His father was a machinist in the manufacturing industry.
But they worked quietly to keep him in a good neighborhood in Franklin Township, away from temptations of crime and drugs. His protective mom, Askander remembers, was so worried after he was hurt in the fight.
And Askander credits his dad with instilling an interest in science. That was the way they bonded, he said, talking about TV shows they watched together on the Discovery Channel.
His dad said as a child, Askander would watch weather news intently: “He would repeat it all like a little weather man,” and explain the terms to his family.
So, after the brawl, Askander got to thinking: Curious about how the world turned beneath him and how the stars moved above him, empathetic to the struggles of others — maybe as an earth sciences teacher, he could help students from teetering toward those troubles he was trying to leave behind.
One last paycheck settled his Ivy Tech debt.
Askander quit one of his jobs as a study hall monitor at Southport High School and went back to Ivy Tech in 2008.
Oddly, he received no federal or state financial aid, even though he thought he submitted his forms on time.
“That first year was rough, just because I still had to work,” he said. He kept working at a pizza place, but by the second semester, he couldn’t afford to attend full time and dropped from four classes to two.
“I stayed as much as I could.”
His financial aid kicked in after that, and to cover his costs he cobbled together a federal Pell Grant and a state Frank O’Bannon Grant, both need-based awards. Later, he found a scholarship for science teachers.
Still, he relied on tens of thousands in loans to pay for his everyday living and commuting expenses.
Taking as many math classes as he could, Askander knocked down about 50 credits in two years at Ivy Tech – short of an associate’s degree – before transferring to IUPUI.
“It gave me a chance to mess up, if that makes any sense,” he said. “If I started at IUPUI, I would almost set myself up for failure. I wasn’t ready for a full-fledged degree program.”
But even once he arrived at IUPUI, he ran into obstacles: He dropped classes, waited too long to take some of the classes he needed and couldn’t finish two classes when his chronically ill father was hospitalized.
Last summer, after failing a chemistry class, he thought about what he wanted to do and how he wanted to finish.
He started questioning, “Is everything I’m doing worth it?”
At IUPUI, administrators this year identified a few hundred students like Askander: Good students who demonstrated financial need, were close to graduating but were taking a long time to get there.
“The longer it takes you to finish those last few credits, the more likely you become a student who never completes,” said Becky Porter, IUPUI’s associate vice chancellor for student services. “If we can address some of the financial need, can we incentivize the students to stay full time and complete?”
This year, the campus quietly piloted its Home Stretch program: Using about $700,000, it offered school loans averaging $5,000 to about 150 “at-risk” students like Askander, to help cover gaps in financial aid.
If a student graduates by August, the school will immediately pay off the Home Stretch loan. For those who don’t graduate, the students assume responsibility for the loan.
Early indicators, IUPUI officials say, show about 80 percent of program participants are on target for graduation.
Half of the students also received coaching through a personal mentor to supplement academic advising, an experiment to see how much of a difference additional support services could make, Porter said.
The program is part of an increasing recognition state- and nationwide that simply getting students to enroll in college isn’t enough. Instead, colleges are steering efforts toward helping more students make it to graduation.
Some of their state funding depends on it. Indiana public colleges receive a portion of their public dollars based on completion rates, including how many at-risk students graduate and how many students graduate on-time.
To fund Home Stretch, IUPUI administrators reinvested the public money that the campus won for awarding degrees to at-risk students.
Many recent initiatives aim to put students on track early, to keep them from ever getting to the point of taking extra years and risking running out of financial aid. Still, education officials acknowledge some students will never be able to afford the luxury of full-time academics. For them, Home Stretch is a boost to reach the finish line.
“Amazingly, you hear stories of people who walked away just three credits short, or six credits short,” said Stan Jones, founder of Complete College America. “I think that’s a real good opportunity to really target those students, because those students have already invested so much time and energy and money.”
In the fall semester, Askander reported that he received straight As.
He had accepted the Home Stretch grant, vehement about finishing college so he wouldn’t add to his loans.
With Home Stretch, he didn’t need to borrow more money. He didn’t need to hold down a job while he studied. His family situation calmed down. He had decided: “The thing that would hold me back is myself, at this point.”
His professor and geology club adviser, Kathy Licht, had watched Askander try to balance family and schoolwork.
“He usually thinks of other people first,” she said. “I usually ended up encouraging him to make sure he made time for himself. While his tendency is to always give, he had to make himself a priority too.”
When he was stressed, Askander also turned to his Home Stretch coach, consulting with her in person or by email.
“I’m not really big on opening up about stuff,” he said. “I always feel like I’m burdening people when I talk to them about my problems. But I felt comfortable enough to talk to her. She was wonderful — super nice, super supportive, and she helped me trust her.”
In the spring, he started student teaching at his alma mater, Franklin Central.
His supervising teacher, Joe Fleckenstein, says the students can sense Askander’s passion for teaching.
“He’s a natural,” Fleckenstein said, adding that next year he wants to use the lesson plans Askander has created.
He pairs question-and-answer sessions — “When I talk about the moon’s phases, what am I talking about?” — with a rap video explaining lunar phases.
“I know it’s lame, but it’s hilarious,” Askander tells the students, who giggle but bob their heads to the beat.
Askander worries his students think he’s a pushover because he’s so nice. He chats with them about their jobs at Taco Bell and the TV shows and movies they like to watch.
He takes them outside to model with a colored-in softball how shadows on the moon change as the earth rotates around the sun.
As they walk back inside, a kid holds the door for him.
“Thank you, sir,” Askander tells the student.
“You’re welcome, sir,” the student replies, then jokingly ribs his teacher. “Ma’am! You’re welcome, ma’am!”
“I’m gonna go cry,” Askander says to the student.
“Aw, you know we care about you, Mr. A.”
Askander still has one more class to pass this summer before he officially completes his degree. But he’s on the home stretch.
“Ten years ago,” he said, “I never thought I’d be graduating from college.”
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com