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Expanding Pell grant is vital, Eastern Gateway Community College officials, students tell Sen. Rob Portman in Steubenville

LISTENING — Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce President Tricia Maple, left, and Port Authority Director Evan Scurti, right, listen as U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, discusses the importance of extending Pell grant eligibility to students interested in short-term training opportunities, like welding or CDL. (Photo by Linda Harris)

STEUBENVILLE — Students at Eastern Gateway Community College were eager to tell U.S. Sen. Rob Portman Friday how college was changing their lives — and the lengths they’d had to go to financially to get there.

Portman, R-Ohio, toured schools throughout the Buckeye State to talk about his bipartisan bill to extend eligibility for federal Pell grants to students enrolled in short-term certificate programs.

Welding student Gary Yarosz said he’d had to borrow from his mother, who’d had to take the money out of a retirement account.

“I plan to … be done by the first of the year and start working, then I’ll be making good money,” said Yarosz.

He was among students who participated in a roundtable discussion with Portman that included Jefferson County Port Authority Director Evan Scurti, Chamber of Commerce President Tricia Maple, JSW Human Resource Manager Jess Looman, APEG’s Von Williams, as well as fellow students and alumni, including Real Estate Graduate Mark Smith, CDL student Patrick McGrew, phlebotomy graduate Shayla Williams and EGCC Aspire graduate Sheila Vasconcello.

“That’s my plan, anyway,” Yarosz said. “I have a 5-year-old son, (so) I want to stay in the area.”

Maple pointed out the chamber has been working with area schools to develop strategies and county-wide programming to ensure they graduate students with the skills businesses and industry in Southeastern Ohio will need, pointing out that job creation has to be a priority, but so, too, is “providing enough workers to fill those jobs.”

“We have to be telling kids from kindergarten on, ‘You don’t have to leave to get a job,'” she added.

McGrew, the CDL student, said he’d been working in oil and gas but realized at 41, it was getting harder to keep up with coworkers in their 20s. After hearing about career opportunities a CDL, he said he realized how it could reshape his family’s future.

JSW and EGCC have been working on a customized training and apprenticeship program that could meet the mill’s staffing needs into the foreseeable future. While it might not be appropriate for kids still in high school, Looman said they need to focus on “getting the word out about programs that could potentially get them jobs at JSW or the oil and gas industry.”

Williams said finances had been a problem for her, too, adding she was fortunate to get a grant from the Jefferson County Community Action Council. Pell grant eligibility could “provide an opportunity for me to grow in my career,” the mother of two said.

EGCC President Jimmie Bruce said the CAC sometimes is “strapped for resources, and funding at certain times dries up so folks like Shayla can’t (get in) when they need to. We have potential students who have had to wait to enroll, that makes a difference.”

A tearful Vasconcello told the group having the opportunity to acquire skills and build a career “means more than people really know.”

Bruce said extending Pell grant eligiblity to people hoping to enroll in CDL, phlebotomy, welding and other certificate programs is crucial.

“Right now, they can’t apply for Pell grants,” he said. “It’s really important for them, and I think it would impact our enrollment. If they was more access to funding, we’d probably have a waiting list to enroll. It would be good for the college, but, more importantly, people would be able to get the skills they need to get jobs.”

Portman said there’s a huge demand for workers with technical skills, “but they’ve got to have the skills to get the job. Young people need to understand they can get to those jobs” through schools like EGCC.

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