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LEAP program helps students overcome obstacles to earn degrees

Ashley Morales



Tansheka Riggens (second from right) and her children. Photo provided.

An initiative to make higher education more accessible is helping adults juggling familial and caregiving responsibilities find time in their busy schedules to earn a degree.

The Complete Tampa Bay program was created by LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network with the support of a $100,000 grant from the Helios Education Foundation. The program, designed with the unique challenges of adult learners in mind, aims to break down barriers and provide a supportive environment for adults pursuing higher education.

One example of the program’s success is the successful journey of Tansheka Riggens. A mother of three and the sole caregiver for her father, Riggens struggled to complete her degree while navigating the challenges of family responsibilities.

“I had my oldest son when I was in high school. I was a single mom, so I would have to try to go and then stop going because I might need to work more to provide. It was like a tug-of-war,” said Riggens.

After taking a break from classes at St. Petersburg College, Riggens was referred to the Complete Tampa Bay program, which is based in Tampa and provides support to college students throughout Florida. LEAP provides scholarships to students to help them re-enroll or remain in school and addresses the specific needs of adult learners, fostering an environment conducive to success.

“A lot of it is just guidance and helping the student understand, what is their status for readmission? Do they have any particular financial or academic holes on their record?” said Matt Smith, a Completion Coach for the Complete Tampa Bay program. “Once they’ve overcome those, we continue to help them along the way and make sure they’re meeting with an academic advisor so that they know what their plan is for completion of their degree.”

Riggens said even after enrolling in the LEAP program, life’s challenges still made completing her degree a challenge, but the financial and personal support she received was the foundation she needed to forge on.

“At one point, because I had gone and not completed school, my attempt-to-completion ratio was off, which meant sometimes I might be suspended from school altogether and then indefinitely suspended from financial aid services,” Riggens said. “Having somebody like Matt to follow up, let me know what my status was, let me know how close I was to the goal and be able to give a reliable source of payment for tuition really helped. When I found out my dad had a heart attack and a stroke, I was able to keep going because Matt was able to really lay it out for me and connected me with a counselor at SPC in my degree program. Not having to worry about being turned away from the school was a huge relief.”

Tansheka Riggens (second from left) and her oldest son both earned their first degrees in December 2023. Photo provided.

Riggens took and passed her last exam in mid-December, finally earning her Associate of Science degree from SPC. The entire process took Riggens 18 years.

“One thing that being a part of the LEAP program and having Matt as my coach has helped me do is be able to outline and navigate for my kids better,” Riggens said. “I have two of them that are getting ready to study for CLEP [College Level Examination Program] exams to try to keep down the cost of school. And now when I get my first degree, it will be right after my oldest gets his first degree from Florida Atlantic University, a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering, so it will be special.”

The Complete Tampa Bay program has helped more than 100 students reach their dream of getting a college education in the three years it’s been in existence. 

“This population of students can be very successful without a lot of the barriers they encounter with completion,” Smith said. “That’s something I wish more colleges and state officials would take into consideration. If these financial barriers were removed for the students, they would be extremely successful and would have the degrees or certifications they need and we need for the industries in our community. It’s very important to ensure students can be successful in the future.”

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