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First Class: First Wave of AFSCME Free College Benefit Students to Graduate

Photo Credit: Flickr/The Leaf Project
By Pete Levine ·
Tags: Benefits
First Class: First Wave of AFSCME Free College Benefit Students to Graduate
Ivy Caselli, left, and Leslie Butler show off the diplomas they earned through the AFSCME Free College Benefit. Photo credit: Ravonna Lamons.

“The more you have on your table,” says Ivy Caselli, a customer service assistant for Ohio’s Department of Public Safety and a member of The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA), “the more you adapt.”

Ivy knows what she’s talking about. At 26 years old, with a newborn, a 3-year-old and a full-time job, Ivy decided to go back to college. She took advantage of AFSCME’s Free College Benefit through OCSEA and enrolled in Eastern Gateway Community College.

Over the course of the next year, Caselli heaped on class after class – as many as five a semester – in a headlong rush to earn her associate degree in general education and realize a long-awaited dream.

“I started college when I was 18,” Caselli recalls. She dropped out to care for her ailing mom. Eight years later, it was the memory of her mom, who has since died, and the pride she would have felt that rose up in Ivy when she received her diploma from Eastern Gateway this spring.

“Knowing my mom would have been proud of me was super important. Graduating from college may not seem like a big deal to some people, but it was a big deal to me,” she says. 

Debt-Free College Education, Thanks to AFSCME

The college dream was also a big deal to Caselli’s colleague, Leslie Butler. Butler, who works alongside Caselli, was the one who told Caselli about the free college benefit.

“I recommended the free college program to Ivy because she mentioned that she wanted to go back to school but didn't want the debt. I suggested she try the free college program offered through the union and get her associate degree first and then follow up with her bachelor’s degree,” Butler says.

Butler, 39, also graduated last spring from Eastern Gateway with a degree in business administration. She also plans to earn her bachelor’s and even her master’s degree.

“I'm so glad that I made the choice to attend,” Butler says. “It was a very easy and pleasant experience. The instructors did everything in their power to help you succeed in reaching your goal of graduation.”

Butler and Caselli acknowledged the vital role their union played in making it all possible.

“It felt special because being a part of AFSCME means even more than having a voice on the job. Our union has the strength to negotiate benefits like free college education,” says Butler. “Most jobs only offer tuition reimbursement, where you have to pay out of pocket first and then go through all to get reimbursed.” But the support of their union was indispensable.

What is the AFSCME Free College Benefit?

It’s a program exclusively for AFSCME members and their families to take classes online through Eastern Gateway Community College in Ohio. You can earn credits toward a two-year associate degree. It’s free and flexible. The online format allows you to work from wherever and whenever. You can transfer your credits to four-year programs at most institutions. Visit to learn more and to apply.

Ideal for Working Adults

For Caselli, the program felt uniquely suited for working professionals.

“The professors really want you to be successful. It’s designed for people with a lifestyle like mine,” Caselli says, referring to her ability to juggle the online schoolwork with kids and a career. “The program is meant for adults.”

Caselli and Butler are among the first wave of graduates of the Free College Benefit program. And if their success is any indication of the ever-widening set of skills AFSCME members bring to their jobs, our communities stand to benefit as much as AFSCME members themselves.

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