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New York City
March 2002

Women Prepare to Enter Workforce at the Grace Institute
By Marie Holmes

“I have to go back into the workforce after 10 years of not working,” says Roberta, a recent divorcee from Riverdale, “I need to update my skills a little.”  Roberta now spends her days in typing, English, math and computer classes at the Grace Institute and hopes to secure full-time employment.  She believes that being a Grace graduate will “put a star next to” her resume.

While Roberta is a mature woman hoping to successfully reenter into the job market, several of her classmates are fairly recent high school graduates who will begin their first serious job searches after finishing the program. 

Kelly Angrisani, a 21-year-old from Staten Island, says that upon completing the Grace program she would like to “work for a law firm, and then maybe later go to law school.”

Kristen Truglio, a 19 year-old who transferred from Hunter college to Grace, doesn’t have any specific career path in mind – she’ll take “any kind of good job with good benefits.”

Kristen won’t have to worry about whether or not her employer will provide her with benefits after she completes the 5 month Administrative Assistant program in June.  “We will not send anyone to a job unless they get benefits,” declares Mary Mulvihill, who recently took over direction of the Grace Institute. 

Many Grace graduates go on to work for some of New York’s largest companies.  In addition to promising job prospects, that the program is tuition-free is also a great draw for the students.

“If you don’t have the technological skills, your options are flipping burgers, or working retail, and a lot of those jobs have no benefits and start at $5.50 an hour,” Mulvihill explains. “These women have realized, ‘I can’t find a job.’”

More than a hundred years after W.R. Grace decided to found a school that would teach the wives of his workers secretarial skills so that they could find gainful employment, the Grace program continues to serve the needs of low-income women – and their future employers.

Of the 61% of American women in the workforce in the year 2000, 24% hold administrative support and clerical positions, according to U.S. Census data.  More women work in these fields than in any other occupational group.

With the multitude of scholarships and other resources available today, it’s surprising to hear these women, particularly the younger ones, talking about their futures without mention of college. 

As proof of the close of the gender gap in higher education, often-flouted statistics show that 56% of college students are women.  In fact, women have held this majority since1979.

“Even though women have made great strides, because we are a country of immigrants, we’ll always have women coming in at the bottom,” says Mulvihill. 

Some current Grace students are recent immigrants, yet the majority are American-born.  Fifteen of the 56 students are white.  All hold either a GED or a high-school diploma, many having earned the latter from one of New York City’s public schools.

After having been closed for a year and a half because trustees felt that it had strayed from its mission, the Grace Institute opened its doors on Monday, February 4th for what Mulvihill describes as “a five-month pilot program for the big opening in September,” at which point she hopes to have 300 students. 

Describing the students, Mulvihill says, “They are low-income women, low-skilled . . . and they are eager to change their lives.”  While she plans to add cooking and small-business management courses in the fall, Mulvihill believes that there are a number of women who can benefit from the standard secretarial curriculum.

Aside from teaching basic office skills, the program is designed to develop students’ “soft skills – how to dress, how to talk, how to act.”  Students must dress as they would for a job and tardiness is not tolerated.  “We’re trying to simulate an office,” explains Mulvihill.

 At the same time, Mulvihill and the teachers try to create a nurturing atmosphere. “One of the things, for all women, is the loneliness factor,” says Mulvihill.  “If you don’t build up that inner-self, you can have all the skills in the world and you won’t get hired.” 

The students seem to see the program in a more practical light, focusing more on job security than confidence-building.  Melissa, who just lost her job as a receptionist, says she came to Grace “to help me get a job that would last for more than 6 months.”

 “It looks like when you’re a receptionist you’re really dispensable . . . you’re the first to go,” explains Fran, who had also recently lost her job.  She said she wishes she had heard about the Grace program “years ago.”

Loreli, an attractive young woman with long chestnut hair and barely a hint of a Wisconsin accent, came all the way from the Midwest to take advantage of the tuition-free Grace program.  Her boyfriend’s sister found an advertisement for the program at her church and offered to bring Loreli to New York to live with her so that she could sign up at Grace. 

“She knew I’d been struggling with finances and pretty much not going anywhere,” said Loreli. Now one of the most advanced students in her classes, Loreli had begun learning computer skills before coming to New York but had not enrolled in a community college due to her economic situation.  She had a part-time low-end job back home and feels that she has been “handed a golden opportunity.”#


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