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Vanessa Engelhardt is Helping Seniors Avoid Financial Abuse

A Pillars of Strength Scholarship—Given to Volunteer Caregivers of Servicemembers and Veterans—Enabled Her to Earn B.S. in Gerontology and Aging Services

Gil Klein
By Gil Klein
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Vanessa Engelhardt long had an interest in helping older people make the downsizing transition from their long-time family homes to assisted living and senior care. That’s how she focused her real estate business as she moved from Virginia to North Carolina and back to Virginia.

A Pillars of Strength Scholarship at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) enabled her to delve deeper into that interest. With the scholarship, which is awarded to individuals involved with the caregiving of servicemembers and veterans, Engelhardt has been able to earn a Bachelor of Science in Gerontology and Aging Services with a minor in psychology.

“I had a really good relationship with my grandfather,” she said. “I enjoyed the time I spent with him and hearing the wisdom of his stories. So, when I started rebuilding my real estate business after moving, I started to work almost exclusively with older adults.”

Engelhardt found that older people had specific needs in making their housing transition. They often also had few resources to help them with the traumatic experience of giving up their longtime homes, disposing of so many cherished items, and launching such radically different lives.

“That’s what encouraged me to go back to school,” she said. “I can have my real estate background and then have this formal education focusing on elder issues. Without this scholarship, I would never have been able to go back to school.”

The Pillars of Strength Scholarship can be used by its recipient at any time and for as long as needed to complete a degree. That flexibility was essential, Engelhardt said. She received the scholarship in 2015 but didn’t complete her degree until 2021. She celebrated by taking part in UMGC’s May 2023 graduation in Maryland.

Engelhardt said the scholarship did much more than simply pay for her return to school after so many years. “It allowed me to learn a lot more about myself—that I was able to do some things I didn’t know I was able to do,” she explained. “It brought all of these new skills into my life, and it kept me focused, encouraged and engaged.”

Going to college right out of high school had not worked for her, she said. She became too overwhelmed juggling a job and school and dropped out after little more than a semester. She got a real estate license and worked to build a business even while moving around the country with her then-husband and helping him recover from his war wounds.

With its online coursework, UMGC offered her the ability to pursue a major that interested her while still moving often, she said. Engelhardt said the help she received from the university’s support staff and professors got her started and kept her going. “I am very grateful to everyone, including donors [to the scholarship program], who has helped me along this path,” she said.

Among the people helping her were two counselors: Wayne Holmes and Janet Thomas, who followed him. They were essential to her success, Engelhardt said.

“At stressful times in my life, especially after the death of my father, Janet took the initiative to encourage me and showed me how the program was flexible to meet my needs. She helped me make this doable in my life,” she explained.

Bernadine Barr, a sociology and psychology professor at UMGC, “took so much of her time and cares about students actually learning, not just passing,” Engelhardt said. And Katherine Im, the chair of the Gerontology and Social Sciences Division, was always available with help and in finding mentors that could guide Engelhardt as decided the direction she wanted her education to take her.

The scholarship enabled Engelhardt to take an internship at the Elder Justice Center in Tampa. That transformative experience allowed her to apply to real life what she had learned in her courses. Exposure to the types of cases the center handled prompted her to work on raising awareness of the financial exploitation that many seniors face.

“It helped me knit the two things together,” she said. “This is what the research says, but this is the real world.”

Engelhardt has joined a Virginia group made up of local law enforcement, the Office of the Attorney General, Adult Protective Services, and community partners who focus on issues of crime, victimization and safety that affect older adults. She is also offering her time to educate older adults about financial abuse so they can take proactive steps to avoid becoming victims of exploitation.

“Real estate allows me to pay my bills while I pursue my passion to help elderly people,” she said. “If I could create my dream job, I would have a nonprofit group where I would educate older adults about risks, empower them to help themselves and offer assistant to those who were victimized.”