Woman’s Quest: To Send Others Like Her to College to Earn Their Degrees

For Elin Danien, helping women attend college and earn a degree has been a personal crusade. That's because she understands the challenges of going to school while balancing a job and a family. After navigating careers in theater, advertising and museum work, she decided at age 46 to attend the University of Pennsylvania and finally get her B.A.

With her own experiences as a guide, Danien founded Bread Upon the Waters, a program that provides scholarships to women over 30 to attend the University of Pennsylvania's College of General Studies. Students earn their degrees part-time, and the scholarship funds recipients in up to two courses each semester.

Danien started the program in 1986, four years after she earned her bachelor's degree. She said that she saw women with the same desire she had, but who faced financial difficulties that often curtailed their plans.

"There are women who sometimes fall between the cracks," said Danien, when she first visited with the vice dean of the College of General Studies, Kathy Pollack, and said that she wanted to start a scholarship. It seemed there was always such funding for the men, she added.

The program was begun with only $1,000 worth of seed money, and with just one scholar back in January 1987. Now, Bread Upon the Waters has an endowment of more than $1.5 million, and has helped 60 women graduate from Penn — 33 of them with honors — and more than a dozen have gone on to graduate studies. The scholarship now supports 25 women per year at the university.

Recipients are chosen by the scholarship committee at the College of General Studies, based on need, intellectual ability and commitment to the program, said Danien. About a third are minority students, and the program allows for candidates to pursue a wide variety of interests.

"We have no limit on what they want to study," said Danien. Their majors have been wide-ranging, from Turkish studies to pre-law to English.

Many of the students have been making their mark in the world as teachers, social workers and in other professions, attested Danien.

But the college experience for adults has its hurdles as well, since being a part-time, commuter student doesn't often allow for the camaraderie that students living on campus take for granted.

"You really don't have the opportunity to socialize," she said, adding that jobs and families generally draw adult students away from campus.

To help them gain a sense of community, Bread Upon the Waters hosts events for both current scholars and graduates to share some down time. "In a sense, we're creating a network and support group that isn't there," said Danien.

This past weekend, the organization held a "Wine, Women and Klezmer" concert in honor of the scholarship program's 20th anniversary. The concert not only celebrated the students, said Danien, but it also recognized Elaine Hoffman Watts, a well-respected klezmer musician and the first woman to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music in percussion.

"It's a celebration of women," said Danien of the event — women who continued to pursue their goals, even "in the face of all the obstacles life puts in the way."


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