Defying the odds and achieving their dreams

Sisters Angela and Gina Weekley know their lives could have turned out differently.

They grew up in Waterloo, in a single-parent, low-income home where no one held even a high school level education. But they credited TRIO, a federal program administered by the University of Northern Iowa that provides services for elementary through high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with helping them overcome those obstacles and build successful careers and become local leaders and pillars of their community, with both being named to the Waterloo Courier’s 20 Under 40 list.

“Statistically, I should not be having this conversation with you,” Angela, currently the  community inclusion manager at Veridian Credit Union and the oldest of the three Weekley siblings who all went through UNI’s Educational Talent Search and upward Bound programs, said. “The TRIO programs not only changed my life, but allowed me to model for my younger siblings.”

Angela, 47, became a trailblazer for her family. She was the first to attend and graduate from college and provide a blueprint of utilizing TRIO programs for her Gina and their brother, Anthony, who both eventually earned their master’s degrees, to follow.

“She did it because she wanted to show us a better way,” Gina, 38, who works at Waterloo schools as an at-risk student support coordinator, said. “She did it as a first-generation, low-income student, and she gave our family an opportunity. And opportunities weren't just down our door. So she went looking for it. And I'm grateful that she did.”

Gina utilized TRIO to earn a full-ride scholarship to UNI, but she dropped out her junior year to begin a journey of self-discovery living in Virginia for eight years. But she returned home to finish her degree, and she now works to help at-risk youth utilize the same resources that helped her.

Both sisters found success with TRIO, but both took different paths to get there.

Angela, then a middle school student at Waterloo Intermediate/Middle School, was introduced to the program through her uncle, who served in the Navy Reserve with Charles Means, UNI’s director of educational opportunity programs and community services. Shortly after being introduced, Angela signed up for Educational Talent Search as a freshman in high school.

The program provides tutorial services, career exploration, information on postsecondary education, exposure to college campuses, information on student financial assistance and assistance in completing college admissions and financial aid applications. It is one of three TRIO programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education and offered by UNI through its Center for Urban Education.

The next year, Angela was accepted in Classic Upward Bound, which is designed to empower program participants with the academic skills and motivation necessary to be successful in high school and to ultimately complete college. Both programs gave Angela the knowledge to chase a dream she’d had since childhood.

“I always wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know how to do that,” Angela said. “The TRIO programs helped me understand that to become a teacher, you have to go to college. And what I learned in those programs made it possible for me to do that.”

But beyond academic preparation, Angela said her time in TRIO programs also improved her communication skills. TRIO helped Angela evolve from a self-described “shy” kid to an active participant at East High School. She was a member of the color guard, the cheerleading squad and editor of her school yearbook.

“I wouldn’t have done any of those things without TRIO,” Angela said. “I don’t know that I would be the same competent, confident person I am today. I didn't just learn about school and filling out a FAFSA. I learned how to be comfortable with who I am.”

Angela went to college at Wartburg, where she graduated in 1998 with a degree in elementary education and science.

After college, Angela’s life took several paths. She worked for UNI-CUE, Roosevelt University in Chicago and the admissions office at Wartburg College. After completing her master’s degree in post-secondary education at UNI in 2010, she landed her job at Veridian Credit Union, where she oversees community outreach and handles diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

For Angela, her work at Veridian is a dream job, where she still fulfills her desire to be a teacher by educating her community about financial responsibility.

“I never thought I’d be doing diversity, equity and inclusion work, but I think it’s the job God designed me for,” she said.

For Gina, TRIO and UNI-CUE were always a part of her life.

“As a kid, I never really understood the impact UNI-CUE had on my family,” Gina said. “I strongly believe that if my sister hadn’t signed up for programming on her own, I don’t know where we’d be. We had some extreme trials and tribulations to overcome, and one thing I can tell is that UNI-CUE was always a constant support and guide through those things.

Gina joined TRIO’s Educational Talent Search Program in the sixth grade and continued utilizing TRIO programs through college.

“A lot of the skills I hold come from being involved in Upward Bound specifically,” Gina said. “It was a big deal for us to know how to effectively communicate and also network and build relationships with every person that we encounter.”

Gina attended UNI on a full-ride scholarship. When she dropped out her junior year to move to Virginia Beach, Virginia for eight years, she found steady work with the YWCA. But all the while, her counselors from TRIO Student Support Services at UNI stayed in touch.

“They encouraged me to come back to school, saying ‘when you’re ready, we’ll be here,’” Gina said. “There’s always been that encouragement and support along the way.”

She returned to UNI and completed her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, before immediately moving on to achieving a master’s degree in nonprofit development and philanthropy. 

Gina now works with Waterloo schools as an at-risk student support coordinator, where she often refers parents and students to TRIO and UNI-CUE programs. It’s a career she’s wanted since before college.

“I believe that my life's calling, and my passion and purpose, is to serve our young people and make sure that they have access to the same opportunities that presented themselves to me,” Gina said. “'I'm here to plant seeds of hope and positivity and instill the idea that greater is coming. There are opportunities out there for young people, specifically those who are disadvantaged, like myself and my siblings.”