Q&A: A tremendous desire to help

Sandra Strome has brought her successful academic advising program to The OutCenter in Benton Harbor. The program, ASAP: Academic Success & Advising Program, will teach area high school and college students how to manage their time to succeed in school. 

BENTON HARBOR — Sometimes it’s not the subject matter that makes kids flunk out of school, but their time management and other skills.

That’s why Sandra Strome started the ASAP: Academic Success & Advising Program at the University of Illinois, Chicago campus in the early 2000s.

“The college had a very high flunk out rate. The kids worked hard, but they couldn’t manage their time,” she said. “I used to see the kids individually, in groups and I hired peer tutors for them.”

After 10 years, the drop out rate went from about 70 percent down to 25 percent.

Eventually Strome met Mary Jo Schnell, executive director of The OutCenter in Benton Harbor, and she learned about the programs Schnell was trying to establish.

“I said I’d like to help out,” she said. “Because it takes students from the Benton Harbor schools who don’t have access to anything. If I can make any difference.”

Now that Strome, who has a PhD in clinical social work, is retired permanently to New Buffalo, she has brought the ASAP program, that was so successful in Chicago, to The OutCenter to provide area LGBTQ+ high school and college students one-on-one support in the areas of time management, test taking strategies and guidance counseling.

So far no one has attended the sessions that are 4-6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, but Strome hasn’t given up hope.

“When I started at the university, two people showed up for the first six months, then it caught fire,” she said. “So I need one victim.”

Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Alexandra Newman sat down with Strome recently to talk about her advising program and her life before and after retirement.

I know you worked in Chicago, and have a PhD, but what is your other background?

I was married for 18 years and I was a mother. I have three sons that are all professionals. In 1964, I helped start the Head Start program in New York City.

I became pregnant a year later and that was the end of my teaching career. Then I was a mother for 13 years, then decided it wasn’t for me.

A friend of mine used the word ambivalent and I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked. I knew I had this yearning to learn and do something with my life. Mothering wasn’t enough, so I went to NYU and got a master’s in social work. After that I went for a degree in family therapy. Then I went for psycho analytic training for six years.

People said, why are you going for your PhD when you already had psycho analytic training? And I said, when you learn something once, you learn it. But when you learn something twice, you know the questions to ask that weren’t answered the first time around.

So I got my PhD from NYU as well. My kids were all off to college and then I had a disability where I had to stop working.

How did you make it to the Midwest?

I had a friend of mine who lived in New Buffalo, and I came out for a month. Being downtown at the beach, I saw the sun setting over Chicago and I’m feeding popcorn to the seagulls, and I thought I could really do this.

So I came out here in 2000 and retired.

Then I opened up a private practice in New Buffalo for four years. Then I met someone who was the dean of Applied Heath Sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and she told me her dream of what she’d like to see for the students.

I’ve always had a dream that if I had all the money in the world I would open up a free mental health clinic, because the costs are exorbitant for the common man. The cost for someone good in New York was $250 an hour. It’s just crazy.

So this was my chance to do something, which was free for the kids, and have the university pay. So my dream was realized.

After institutionalizing the ASAP program at the college over 10 years, I retired in 2016 and moved to New Buffalo permanently.

I decided not to open a practice again, I don’t need the money, but give to the community.

Have you adapted the program any for high school kids compared to the college kids you were working with?

It’s actually better to teach them this in high school so they’re prepared for college. Just to think about time and what they’re doing about it. It’s not all about girlfriends and boyfriends, it’s about getting the emotional intelligence going.

Do you think you’ll have to adapt the program for LGBT students?

Not having any participants yet, I don’t know. But I don’t think there would be a difference. I could even do a program here and a program somewhere else in the community.

What do you enjoy most about helping young people?

I had a schizophrenic brother and I guess my career and those yearnings started because of my experiences with him; seeing how he was treated; the lack of proper treatment and the lack of understanding; and the way he was looked at.

Something developed in me, like a real strong empathy in me for people who struggle and I get great satisfaction out of helping. My father was like that too. I just like to help any way I can.

What sort of hopes do you have for the ASAP program here at The OutCenter?

I hope it really develops. Then I hope I can branch out and teach people to do what I do. Maybe give seminars to teachers to teach their kids on how to manage their time. Or even parents. It will develop.

What do you do in your free time when you’re not at The OutCenter?

I’ve taken up art. I’m writing my memoir and fiction. And coming here twice a week pretty much fills up my plate. We have two dogs. I spend time traveling to see my five grandchildren. I have a very full, busy life.

Is there anything else you’d like to say or make sure that I include that I didn’t ask?

No. I think we covered it all. I just have a tremendous desire to help.

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman