Among all the success stories Beyond Housing’s education team hears—about students who have benefited from its Family Engagement Liaisons, its College Savings Accounts, part-time jobs at its economic development initiatives, and all the other facets of its holistic model—Lauren Bowers stands out.
When she joined Normandy High School as the college adviser in late 2021, she began working directly with Beyond Housing in a totally new way: as a fellow professional in support of youth achievement.
Likewise, Bowers’ relationship with NHS students is new too. Not long ago, she was quite literally in their shoes. Now she’s guiding them on the path to college or a career.
Bowers is a Normandy alum who graduated from the University of Missouri-St. Louis with honors in December 2021. She was a longtime participant in the College Savings Program, known at NHS as Viking Advantage.
“It just warms my heart, and I can’t stop smiling,” said Beyond Housing’s College Access Program Advisor James Moyamba, who mentored Bowers in Viking Advantage and connected her with the job opportunity at her alma mater. “Now we are all working together to help the Class of 2022 students.”
Bowers knows firsthand the difference it makes to have ongoing conversations with trusted advisers about college and career options. In addition to partnering with Beyond Housing to save and plan for college, Bowers worked at the nonprofit’s 24:1 Cinema and had a work-study placement at its Pagedale Family Support Center while attending UMSL.
College and career advising at NHS
Through the career services component of the Missouri College Advising Corp, Bowers is on a two-year AmeriCorps assignment to help Normandy students with post-secondary planning, whether they are interested in pursing college, a career, military service, or other goals. And if they haven’t even thought about it yet, Bowers is there for them too.
“I’m supporting close to 140 seniors, so I’m doing my best to work as efficiently as I can,” said Bowers, who started her position on Nov. 29, which was already well into the window for college-bound students to be filing their FAFSA forms for financial aid, meeting with college representatives, visiting campuses, and completing applications.
Nationally, each college and career counselor serves an average of 424 students, making it nearly impossible to provide individualized services. Bowers is determined to make sure none of Normandy’s seniors fall through the cracks—especially those who aren’t sure what their plans are after graduation.
Bowers has honed her messaging to be impactful for undecided students. “I tell them high school is ending soon, and not to scare you, but your life is going to change drastically,” she said. “It gets them to start asking questions. I can tell that they’re really listening.”
While she tries to instill a sense of urgency, she stops short of inducing anxiety. “I know there are many factors that impact their post-secondary planning,” she said.
Her words reflect a deep truth—one that Beyond Housing also recognizes. Barriers to education might have to do with housing or employment or health or transportation or personal finances or a host of other family circumstances. That’s why the education team works tirelessly to refer students and their families to resources and services to address barriers outside as well as inside the classroom.
Applying her personal lessons learned
Before Bowers joined the Viking Advantage matched savings program, she said she had thought about joining the military to pay for higher education. She didn’t realize it was possible for a student like her to earn full-ride scholarships. She credits Viking Advantage with helping her become savvier about financial literacy, prep for standardized tests, and evaluate her options through college visits.
Her experience is emblematic of the comprehensive approach Beyond Housing takes with every individual and family it serves, as well as the deep, trusted relationships that are necessary for creating real change.
For his part, Moyamba credits Bowers with having a strong work ethic and the dedication to utilize the resources available to her. She completed dual enrollment at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley during her last two years of high school while working a variety of food service and hospitality jobs across the metro area.
Bowers admitted wryly that her financial goals back then were not related to college. “I liked to work,” she explained. “I could afford the things I wanted—including a car my senior year—and get out of the house.”
She continued the pattern of hard work during college, graduating cum laude as a Pierre Laclede Honors College and criminology and criminal justice major. She gained employment experience at UMSL as a residential adviser, a fundraiser for university scholarships, and the school’s first supplemental instructor in criminology and criminal justice, all while holding down off-campus in retail, customer service, and call center roles.
“I gained so many communications and active listening skills that are really helpful in my role at Normandy now,” she reflected. “I can take what I learned at those jobs and apply it to my work with students.” Moreover, she knows how to be autonomous and self-directed—vital skills in a brand-new role where she has a lot of latitude in how she meets her objectives.
Bowers can also relate to students challenged by unexpected events. In her case, this was single parenthood. Her daughter, Skye, was born in early 2020. At first, Bowers tried to maintain the same pace, but the demands proved to be too much. She eventually took a break, first from college and then from full-time employment.
Looking ahead alongside her students—and her daughter
Bowers went out on her own early in life. She signed her first apartment lease a month after her 18th birthday. But she envisions a different path for Skye, a precocious girl who could already count past 30 before she turned 2. “I’ve started thinking about her college,” Bowers said. “I want to build better financial habits and manage my money.”
By setting her daughter up for success, Bowers is living out the multigenerational success that Beyond Housing is committed to achieve for more families throughout the St. Louis region. It’s not enough to address one facet of a family in isolation because their needs are complex and interrelated—and when those needs are met through integrated services and equitable opportunities, their strengths have a chance to shine through.
Bowers is thoughtful about how to instill a similar sense of self-determination in the students she serves at Normandy. “Some students are overzealous to see me,” she said, “so I have to draw boundaries and assign them homework.” At the other end of the spectrum are students Bowers has to seek out and meet where they are, whether that’s in classrooms or in other settings. Some need frequent check-ins, especially when complications arise with bureaucracy and paperwork. Bowers knows those seemingly minor setbacks can derail a student with few other options for support.
“I get genuinely excited about small but significant student wins,” she said. “The accountability you have for yourself is different when you’re invested.”
It’s a lesson instilled over and over by her own mentors at Beyond Housing, at UMSL, and in the work world—and one she is ready to pass along to Normandy students.