A lot has changed since Jennifer Oles first stepped on Wayne State’s campus in 2002. One of the biggest changes? Anything less than an A is no longer acceptable.
That’s because Oles is now a mother to four children who monitor her grades and won’t accept anything less.
“It’s actually scary because in the past, I could get a B and my parents didn’t really care; they let me do my own thing,” Oles said. “But now, my children are checking my grades on a daily basis. So, when they see an A-minus, it’s like, ‘Mom, you need 100%’ They are checking on me like I check on them. It’s a challenge as a mom to set a good example.”
Oles is setting a great example and will graduate with a degree in communication studies on Dec. 17.
It’s something Oles wasn’t sure she would ever accomplish after her first stint at Wayne State was cut short. She was forced to move out of her parents’ house because she changed religions and had to work full-time to provide for herself.
Oles was raised Catholic but converted to Islam and began wearing a hijab.
“I was ridiculed by my family for interacting with people 'outside' of my race and religion,” Oles said. “I began wearing a hijab shortly after starting at WSU because I felt it was a safe place to be myself. Because my parents were against the hijab, I was forced to leave my house.
“I wanted everyone to see that a piece of cloth wouldn’t hold me back from achieving my goals. Despite working full time as an educator, financially I was not able to keep up with both living and tuition expenses. I took a break from classes to focus on life.”
Oles worked at a private school and later took on administrative responsibilities at the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, a position where she has served the community for 15 years, including co-leading a large Girl Scout troop.
She got married, had four children and was living her dream, but still felt finishing college was something she wanted to accomplish.
“I felt something missing from my life,” Oles said. “I attained my leadership goals by serving the community and achieved the so-called dream of financial stability, a house and children, yet I questioned how I could promote educational values to my children if I didn’t complete my bachelor’s degree. I received an advertisement from the Warrior Way Back program and felt it was a sign to return.”
Oles credits Warrior Way Back — a debt-forgiveness program that allows students who left Wayne State before completing their degree requirements to re-enroll and complete their degree by forgiving a portion of their past-due balance — for giving her the push to return to school and making that return as smooth as possible.
“I kept receiving emails about the Warrior Way Back program,” Oles said. “I ignored them at first, but I wish I had returned sooner. The Warrior Way Back program walked me through every step of the enrollment process. They showed me how to apply for financial aid. From the first day, the advisor gave me a plan and helped me every step of the way.
“There was one class I needed that I couldn’t attend because I have to pick up my children from school at that time. So, my advisor reached out to the graduate program and put me in one of the graduate-level classes so I could fulfill that requirement and graduate. She really helped me out.”
Oles said she was nervous to return to school, but the support she received through Warrior Way Back helped her along the way.
“My first question was like, 'How do I park for my classes?' It was scary,” Oles said. “I was so nervous and asked, ‘How do I use my OneCard?’ But my advisor just told me it's still the same process. It was easy, but having someone there to calm you down really helps.”
Oles was able to navigate returning to college, thrive in the classroom and earn her degree. She even has plans to go to graduate school.
Now, when she walks across the stage on Dec. 17, she will have her husband and children cheering her on — as well as her parents, who she was able to patch things up with.
“I had a chance to reconnect with them and show them that I am still the same person,” Oles said. “I didn't change except for developing more goals. Now, even though my parents are living in Florida, they want to come for my graduation. They're so proud! Back when I first came to WSU, I struggled with our family relationship, but through time everything came together.”