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An Investment in Independence

The Women’s Independence Scholarship Program helps survivors find success through education

  • April 12, 2017
  • By domesticshelters.org
An Investment in Independence

Money can’t buy happiness. But when generous financial assistance comes along at just the right moment, it can certainly be an important first step toward happiness—and success.

That’s just what happened for J.C. Graham in 1999, and what’s happened for nearly 2,000 other domestic abuse survivors since then, thanks to the Women’s Independence Scholarship Program (WISP), which started as The Sunshine Lady Foundation in 1999 and spun off into a separate entity in 2008. The WISP scholarship, which was founded and continues to be generously funded by Doris Buffett, sister of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, helps domestic violence survivors get the education they need to become employable and financially stable.

The private foundation considers each scholarship—more than $16 million worth offered in its 17-year history—an investment in the future success of the applicant. Women who are direct survivors of intimate partner abuse and who have been apart from their abusive partner for at least a year are eligible to apply for scholarships that cover undergraduate, graduate and vocational degrees

A Goal to Do Good for Others

The program’s primary intent is to help single mothers with young children so they can gain economic independence. That made Graham a perfect candidate. She first heard about WISP from Peggy Pasin, the coordinator of Utah Valley University Women’s Success Center, when she was 34 and had just completed a bachelor of social work degree from Utah State University. She was also raising a child by herself on just around $300 per month while living in HUD housing.

“I was having difficulty sleeping, studying and staying focused,” she says. “I was experiencing multiple flashbacks related to the violence and traumas that I had experienced. I was continuing to go to therapy, working to heal from the trauma.”

She was a client of the State of Utah Office of Rehabilitation Services, and with the approval of her counselor, she decided to work toward becoming a licensed clinical social worker. She was accepted into an advanced standing Master of Social Work program at George Williams College of Aurora University in Aurora, Ill., but tuition was steep. “But my financial circumstances were stretched to the limit, and I had no idea how I was going to be able to pay for my education,” she says.

So she applied for WISP, and she waited, and she hoped.

And, one day, sunshine quite literally arrived on her doorstep.

“When I opened the WISP award letter that had been mailed to me, sparkly gold sunshine confetti fell out of the envelope,” Graham says. “In that moment, I felt joy and a great sense of relief that I would be able to pursue my career goal and I had the resources to do so.”

Continuing the Investment

That journey led her to a career as a counselor, adjunct faculty member, mental health therapist and to her position today as Director of Crisis Services at Utah Valley University.

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Just like WISP once invested in Graham, she now invests her time in helping other survivors by providing therapeutic services, as a speaker for the ChainBreaker Foundation, and by training more than 20,000 individuals as suicide prevention gatekeepers.

She’s also become a sponsor for several women who were awarded WISP scholarships. ”I’ve found that sponsoring WISP recipients is a wonderful way to show my sincere gratitude to Doris Buffett for her investment in my life and success,” Graham says.

Scholarships for Survivors

Many organizations and foundations offer scholarships for survivors of domestic violence. Here are a few:

Break the Silence recognizes and honors victims, survivors, children, and relatives of those affected by domestic violence.

The Jeannette Rankin Scholarship Fund for low-income women age 35 and older

The Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Foundation offers Education Support Awards up to $5,000 to low-income women with children

The Soroptimist awards $1.6 million in education grants each year to women, many of whom have overcome enormous obstacles including poverty, domestic violence and/or drug and alcohol abuse.

The Success for Survivors Scholarship is offered through the General Federation of Women’s Clubs to help women who are impacted by intimate partner violence.