What It's Like Going To College As A Single Mother

Courtesy Of Mandy Thomas
Welcome to the inaugural class of '29. We've selected 29 graduating college seniors, entering the "real" world in 2018, to write about the state of their lives. What are their hopes, dreams, fears, stressors, failures, and successes as they leave school behind? We will be releasing new entries on a daily basis. If you would like yours to be considered, please email classof29@refinery29.com.
After I graduated high school, I enrolled in college with hopes of becoming a teacher. At the time, it seemed like a natural, albeit scary, step. People had always encouraged me to pursue my degree, but, as the first person in my family to go to college, I didn’t have anyone in my life who could tell me what to expect. Then I got pregnant with my daughter. I was 18 and super stressed. I didn’t think I could raise a child while going to school, so I dropped out.
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I managed to get by without a college degree. I worked an office job for a shipping company, where I met my future husband. After we had a son, I switched fields and became a server. The job allowed me to work at night while Connor’s father was home to watch him. But then, around the time my son entered preschool, we started noticing some behavioral and developmental issues.I became a stay at home mom, first to homeschool him, then to handle all the phone calls and fill out the reams of paperwork to manage his care and secure the support and resources we needed. At the time, my husband had a good job with WalMart Home Office. We were lucky that his job security allowed me to focus on our son’s needs.
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About six years ago, we got divorced. I had no earning power — my income dropped by two thirds. I felt lonely and overwhelmed, like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. But I knew I had to put on a brave face for my children, who were also struggling with this huge shift. I also knew I needed a stable job — and a steady paycheck.
Going back to school seemed like a good first step. But I didn’t know what I would study. One day, I was talking to a case manager who was helping me with some personal issues. I told her I was having trouble figuring out what I wanted to do. “Why don’t you become a social worker?” she asked. At that moment, it was like lightning bolt hit me. I knew how hard navigating the system could be to navigate.I like to say that a social worker can make or break your day. It’s the difference between sitting on your couch and crying and feeling motivated to make one more phone call. In my own life, there were some people who helped me make it much less difficult I figured I could make it less difficult for other people.
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Going back to college as a single parent in my late 30s after nearly two decades away wasn’t always easy, especially as a nontraditional student (College Algebra almost killed me!). But my daughter really stepped up in helping me around the house and caring for her younger brother. And there’s nothing like knowing you can’t survive without school to keep you in school. On top of that, I found my professors loved nontraditional students like me. We know what’s out there, we know what’s at stake. Most of us are paying for our own education. The support of those professors made a big difference in my life.
Before I went back to school, there were times when I felt like I didn’t have any worth. I felt I didn’t have an identity outside of my children and my marriage. But being a student, I saw myself in a different light. It’s been helpful for me feeling like I’m not dumb, I’m good at this. I’m so proud I have a degree. I like to think my daughter Taryn, who turns 19 this month, is is going to college because she saw me going to college.
I’m still looking for a job post-graduation. Eventually, I’d like to go to graduate school and work on corrections reform and helping people through the reentry process. I’m not going to get rich doing this, but that really is fine with me. I’d rather be happy and comfortable than in a high stress job that takes me away from my kids. And for me, social work is more than a paycheck — it’s a calling and a way of life. As George Eliot once so simply but profoundly put it: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”
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