Tens of thousands of District residents are unemployed or stuck in jobs that don’t pay the bills and unsure about how to move themselves and their families forward. Legislators in the District, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have sought to address this issue by raising the minimum wage. But the other challenge is how to make high school graduates competitive in an environment that increasingly requires Bachelor’s degrees for entry-level jobs.

But change is possible and it’s happening every day in the Workforce division at UDC’s Community College where, within months, residents are being trained to move into existing jobs that help raise their earnings immediately. Many are reconnecting with learning for the first time in decades and realizing that they can also earn a degree and start or further their career.

That’s the central tenet of our Student Success Initiative and is exemplified by students like Rosetta Brown. Rosetta Brown always meant to return to school.

But life kept getting in the way. Brown had been a good student at the University of the District of Columbia before she left and became a wife, mother and grandmother. She spent more than two decades at Safeway, stocking, working the cash register, dabbling with the idea of being in management. Divorce and the loss of her job sent her back to a place she thought she might never return: the classroom.

Her first stop, in 2013, was the UDC Community College’s Workforce Development and Lifelong Learning Division. She completed the Direct Support Professional and Home Health Aide programs. A degree audit of her transcripts showed Brown was only six credits shy of an Associate’s Degree. She earned that in December and is now pursuing a four-year electrical engineering degree.

Her story of perseverance is common among the 929 students who graduated from free Workforce Development programs in January. It was the largest graduating class in the history of the division. And it sits alongside other impressive statistics last year: 2,878 students served, $7 million in grant funding raised and 22 students transitioned into degree programs. And Brown completed her Associate’s degree.

Our program is centered on the Student Success Initiative, which launched in January 2013. Its three pillars are building community, promoting regular feedback between staff and students and helping students move into jobs and degree programs. Workforce Development is more than job training. It’s more than giving individuals the skills and competencies necessary to compete for jobs. At its core, Workforce Development restores hope and helps District residents achieve their dreams.

At January’s Celebration of Excellence, it was the first time our students had the opportunity to walk across the stage. On Saturday, another 650 students will be recognized for successfully completing our program. Tomeka Watson completed Medical Billing and Coding, is currently enrolled in Electronic Health Records and recently accepted a position at Doctors Community Hospital as a Release of Information Specialist. A year ago, she was unemployed due to a car accident and gave birth to a baby. Vasily Tsukanov was employed with Washington Premier Bus Company when he decided to take a course with UDC’s Workforce program. One day, while sitting in a town hall meeting, he was inspired to start his own art business. It opened last August.

Since we launched the Student Success Initiative just over a year ago, our course completion rate has increased from 55 percent to 69 percent. Workforce students receive UDC IDs and email accounts like every other student. They receive student recognition awards and their accomplishments are highlighted regularly. Student success, we now know, starts with a successful beginning. We have redesigned our entire intake process to make sure that students are best positioned from the beginning to reach their goals.

Success is what happens when you focus every effort on those whom you serve. For the majority of our students, life events altered their original course, but then something serves as a trigger that brings them back. Though our students typically leave with an industry certification, more often than not, they leave with something much more important: confidence, hope and a renewed sense that they will achieve their dream. Just like Rosetta Brown who says: “Returning to school has made me happier and will take me to another level.”

Kim R. Ford is Dean of Workforce Development and Lifelong Learning at the University of the District of Columbia, Community College. She can be reached at kford@udc.edu.