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USM professor’s mission to help low-income technology students leads to successful non-profit organization

Over the course of her career, University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Professor Sarah Lee watched in dismay as low-income students struggled to complete their technology degrees. In 2019 she joined forces with two colleagues to create the Last Mile Education Fund – a unique non-profit organization designed to give low-income students the financial boost needed to achieve their goals.

Lee serves as Director of USM’s School of Computing Sciences & Computer Engineering, a position she has held since August of last year. She co-founded the Last Mile Education Fund with Ruthe Farmer, who serves as the fund’s CEO, and Rian Walker, Assistant Vice President and Information Security Analyst, Bank of America.

Thanks to the trio’s diligent efforts, the Last Mile Education Fund has been named one of 10 finalists (out of more than 550 applications) in the prestigious Equality Can’t Wait Challenge. The Challenge will grant three awards of $10 million each to organizations that enable women — particularly Black, Indigenous and other women of color — to shape policies and perspectives, control resources, and make decisions that will impact workplaces and communities.

“I am truly honored that our project is part of the elite group of 10 finalists from across the country,” said Lee. “The idea for Last Mile was born from a narrative in Mississippi, and it is exciting to see our idea receive recognition on a national stage.”

Last Mile boosts workplace diversity by ensuring that low-income students pursuing technology degrees can make it to graduation day and launch into the workforce. Last Mile identifies financially vulnerable women in computing majors and provides just-in-time support to ensure basic needs are met, and helps them overcome financial obstacles that threaten their progress.

Lee points out that Last Mile sprang from efforts that were mobilized to help Rian Walker persist through her degree program while a student at Mississippi State University.

“I met Rian when she was still a high school student in Ocean Springs. She was a recipient of the Aspirations in Computing award program that I facilitate in Mississippi. This program recognizes high school women who have demonstrated interest in computing,” said Lee, who brought the program to USM after joining the faculty last August.

The Challenge, hosted by Pivotal Ventures, Melinda Gates’ investment and incubation company — with additional support from MacKenzie Scott and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies and managed by Lever for Change — was launched in June 2020 to accelerate the pace of progress toward gender equality in America.

The competition’s central mission is to look for innovative ideas that will bring additional capital and energy into one or more key areas that can expand women’s power and influence:

  • Dismantling the barriers that hold women back.
  • Fast tracking women in critical sectors.
  • Calling society to action.

As Lee notes, only 11 percent of students in the lowest income quartile graduate within six years of starting college. Many abandon their college pursuits due to economic insecurity.

“Last Mile has already provided assistance to women in computing majors at USM,” said Lee. “These women will help address the diversity challenges plaguing the tech industry and will lead to increased power and influence for them as they are able to attain higher-wage jobs following graduation.”