For Michelle Simmons ’08 SCPS, ’10 SGS, Chestnut Hill College is more than just a space for academic enrichment; it’s where she developed her strong sense of confidence and where she learned to lead without distinction and with love.
Simmons is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Why Not Prosper, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit with a mission of empowering previously incarcerated women to become self-sufficient. Under Simmons' leadership, Why Not Prosper was recently awarded a grant from the Philadelphia Eagles Social Justice Fund, and in celebration of its 20th anniversary, will be featured in a documentary by WHYY (the local PBS and NPR affiliate) in February.
“I’ve been incredibly blessed to come this far in my journey,” said Simmons. “There have been so many memorable moments along the way, but my time at Chestnut Hill College stands out because it truly changed my life. I can’t say enough about what Chestnut Hill College did for me.”
When Simmons enrolled at CHC, Why Not Prosper had been in operation for eight years, but she was encouraged by a board member, who was also a CHC alum, to take classes, get her degree, and bolster her knowledge as head of a nonprofit.
“It was clear that I was passionate about the work, but when it came to expressing that passion to other CEOs, corporate sponsors, and funders, I struggled,” Simmons admitted humbly. “I was formerly incarcerated myself and I had been in a bad place in my life, so I knew exactly how to work with the women in my nonprofit. Outside of that group, I had low self-esteem and I had to work to build my confidence.”
She enrolled at CHC, intending to just earn her bachelor’s degree in human services, but she immediately excelled academically and personally at the College. She took advantage of all the resources available to her as an adult learner at CHC and built deep relationships with faculty and staff, who encouraged her to step outside of her comfort zone and take classes like golf and European studies.
“I remember Michelle’s energy and her positive attitude. She was always smiling,” said Elaine Green, Dean of the Adult Accelerated Degree Program (formerly known as the School of Continuing and Professional Studies). “Nothing was impossible for her.”
Yet, Simmons credits the community at CHC and its commitment to personal and professional growth for her motivation and success inside and outside of the College. In fact, it was a CHC staff member who pushed Simmons to further her education and earn her master’s degree in psychology as well as two certifications; and a CHC faculty member who pushed her to fight for a full pardon of her record in order to become a member of the American Psychological Association.
“Every time I was nervous about something or I questioned myself and whether I could really do it, there was always someone at CHC that was behind me saying ‘You can do it, take a chance,’ said Simmons. “At that point in my life, I had never received that type of support and love before. People believed in me and pushed me to believe in myself.”
She replicates this same level of support within Why Not Prosper to ensure that the women who joined her organization feel just as loved and inspired as she did. Just this year, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Simmons and Why Not Prosper launched a hotline and a mobile app to continue serving her members directly.
“There’s so much in how I work and how I live my life that I can attribute to my time at Chestnut Hill College. Whether it was something I learned in a class or an interaction I had with a professor, my experience there has made me who I am, and I’m proud to be a CHC alum.”