Big dreams

“I always wanted to go to college,” said Ona Knoxsah. “At first I didn’t know what for. And then I had my kids and I found out. I wanted to provide them with a good life. They are really my drive.

“I wanted to show them it can be done. And I didn’t want to not do it just because I have kids.” Knoxsah, 26, has a 7-year-old son, Nathaniel, and a 4-year-old daughter, Nidaanis (“Her name means ‘my daughter’ in Ojibwe”).

Like many single mothers in college, Knoxsah was the first in her immediate family to go past high school. After Knoxsah’s son was born, her own mother encouraged her to go to work rather than college. “I grew up living below the poverty line,” she said. “Four kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

In many ways, Knoxsah is a typical single mother attending college. Most come from poor families, and many are the first in their family to pursue a college degree. They are disproportionately women of color.

Another thing they have in common is their dream: a college degree. A way out of poverty for themselves and their children. It is a big dream. One so big that few can achieve it: Less than 2 percent of women who give birth while in high school earn a bachelor’s degree before age 30. How do the women we talked to make it come true?

Keeping Katie in college
“We can’t afford to waste people’s abilities,” said Joan Demeules, LSW, MA. “If someone who’s capable of being a nurse, social worker, or teacher ends up working at SA [Super America] … by giving someone a career, a profession, everyone wins. The family is strengthened, tax base in improved, children go further in school. Growing the work force this way is a great model.”

Demueles has never met Ona Knoxsah, but she understands her determination. As the director of the College of St. Catherine’s Access and Success program, Demueles works with single mothers every day. “I really think the model of having services on a college campus is important,” Demueles said. “It is very hard to have to research and find services on your own. [Single mothers] don’t have time.”

Demeules didn’t want to guess at the number of single mothers Access and Success serves; she said that part of the problem is defining ‘single.’ “What if you’re separated? A mother with a boyfriend? Identifying single mothers is slippery. Our overarching goal is retaining students who are parents.” It’s a goal that is succeeding: St. Kate’s retention rate of student parents is 78 percent; the college’s overall retention rate is 79 percent.

Access and Success began 15 years ago on the college’s Minneapolis campus as a program for single parents enrolled in Associate of Arts (A.A.) and health care programs. It was such a success that it spread to the St. Paul campus after five or six years, Demeules said. Today, among those served by the program are about 400 mothers.

Demeules lists childcare as the No. 1 concern of single mothers. “It’s impossible to concentrate in class if you are worried that your child is not safe and being cared for,” she said. Along with the state and federal funding St. Kate’s can access to assist students with childcare, “We are one of the few colleges that raises private dollars for childcare assistance.”

It’s not always your run-of-the-mill childcare that’s needed, Demeules said. It needs to be culturally appropriate. “One day without appropriate care for a child can derail a student,” she said. “One mom, in finals week, had two kids sick with chickenpox. She was in the nursing program and without emergency childcare, she would have just been stopped.” Among Access and Success’ programs is an emergency fund for just such occurrences. The program also offers a breastfeeding room, study rooms with toys for kids, and expert help from Demeules and her staff, licensed social workers who know how to access needed services.

“Previously, I worked in emergency services,” Demeules said. “The students we see are not that different. They don’t always have their ducks in a row. The difference is, they have a big dream for themselves and their kids.”

A detour, not a dead end
Faaria Husain is one of those big dreamers. “I always planned to go to college,” she said. But the high school honor student never expected to get pregnant before graduation. She was determined not to let the impending arrival of her son, Riyad, derail her plan to become a Katie (the nickname for College of St. Catherine students).

It took her traditional Guyanese parents awhile to adjust to an unmarried, pregnant daughter. But once they did, she found their support invaluable. “My parents reminded me how much they struggled because they didn’t go to college,” Husain said. She deferred her enrollment for a year and worked full time to save some money. “They let me live at home and watched him while I worked,” Husain said. Even today, they often help out with childcare.

Today, Husain lives in campus housing. “Riyad goes to [preschool] and I go to school,” she said. She has worked all the way through school in a variety of jobs, and said that being organized is her saving grace. “We have to be in a routine. If we want to have ‘spontaneous fun,’ we have to plan it a week in advance!”

It helps that she doesn’t miss the social life of more unencumbered students. “I’m really a homebody,” she said. On the rare evenings she has to herself, when Riyad’s with his grandparents, “because my life’s so hectic, I want to be quiet. I sleep.”

Husain found the academic transition to college difficult. “I didn’t really know how to study,” she said. “I didn’t know how to take notes.” She got the hang of it eventually, but having a high-energy son who often isn’t in bed until 9:30 limits her study time. “I am an average student,” Husain said.

Husain’s long-term goal is to earn her Ph.D. and become an English professor, but the excitement virtually bubbles out of her mouth when she talks about what’s right around the corner: She is currently student-teaching, and will graduate in May. “I love this career,” she said. “I love working with students. I can’t wait to have my own classroom!”

Access and Success has been key to Husain’s achieving that goal. She served for two years as chair of St. Kate’s student parent group, soaked up the support the program offered, and “applied for every scholarship possible. Access and Success has been great about providing lists of financial assistance possibilities. I come to them with every question.”

Big 10, big help
Across town at the University of Minnesota’s Student Higher Education Low-Income People Center (HELP), director Susan Warfield, LICSW, works hard to build a community of student learners. Like her counterpart at St. Kate’s, Warfield heads up a program staffed by social workers. She estimates 70 to 80 percent of students who use the HELP Center’s services are single mothers. “I admire them more than any other group I’ve ever worked with,” Warfield said. “Their resiliency, ability to sacrifice for their children and academic goals inspire me every day.”

The social work model of services is key, Warfield said. For example, if a student is in danger of losing government assistance, such as MFIP, the HELP Center advocates for her. “[MFIP workers] often have the perception, ‘If they can be paying the tuition for a four-year college, they’re doing OK,'” Warfield said. “But she may be behind in rent, facing eviction. We write a lot of MFIP letters.” In addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars granted in childcare assistance-there’s often a waiting list-the HELP Center helps students access services in their community.

The HELP Center is a kind of oasis of support. “Imagine how overwhelming it can be to be a student in a 300-person intro class, learning you’re the only parent there,” Warfield said. “They often get bad feedback, it tends to be very alienating. They feel alone. But here, they can … hang out with others in the same situation-they find out they’re not the only 18-year-old mom on campus.”

Warfield sees a big difference between the average undergraduate and the students who come to the HELP Center. They are, she said, more serious, focused students. “You don’t see the partying-not that every undergrad does that, of course. And when our students drop or withdraw from a class, it’s because there’s a crisis. I’ve seen students deliver a baby during finals week and complete their finals on time.”

Practicality, she said, is part of that focus. “They are more likely to ask the critical questions: ‘How can I spin my psych degree so I can get into sales?’ They know the salary’s got to be there. They want to … keep their GPA high enough to get into a doctoral program.”

The study area with computers for parents on one side and a play area on the other, separated by a lounge, is more than a convenience, she said. And the activities the center sponsors for parents and children are more than fun. “According to higher education data, the feeling of connection to campus is one of the greatest predictors of success,” she said. “Students tell us they couldn’t have done it without this kind of support.”

The sacrifices student parents make are an investment with big future dividends. “A single mother increases her lifetime earnings by 24 percent when she earns a B.A.,” Warfield pointed out.

‘Don’t let anyone crush it’
Ona Knoxsah is part of the HELP community. A transfer student from a small school-her AA is from Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas-she described her first semester at the University as “intimidating. The isolation was hard. I was alone, I didn’t have anybody to identify with. I didn’t have any family here [most of Knoxsah’s extended family is back in Kansas], just me and my kids.”

She met another Native American single mom who told her about the HELP Center. “She told me just to stop by and I met all these people. Some were in my classes, I didn’t know they were parents too.”

The assistance she got with childcare grants made a huge difference for Knoxsah. “If I don’t have a sitter, I can’t go to class,” she said. In addition to the practical assistance, the emotional support helps Knoxsah keep going. She is a regular at the HELP Center’s weekly support group. “Finding people like you, who are going after the same dreams, or who’ve been where you are, is important,” she said.

Knoxsah hasn’t always gotten that kind of support from family members. When she became a mother at 19, her own mother discouraged her from continuing her education. “She said, ‘Why don’t you just get a good job?'” Knoxsah recalled.

Instead Knoxsah, who was born in Kansas but graduated from Minneapolis’ South High, continued attending Haskell Indian Nations University. “I am a member of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi, and my kids are Ojibwe,” she said.

“Sometimes, you can’t finish on time, in four years,” she said, “I would hear comments [from family members] like, ‘Oh, are you the professional student? That’s all you do, you don’t even have to work? What kind of degree are you getting again?'” (For the record, Knoxsah does work-currently, she is an office assistant at Como Community Childcare between classes.)

After earning her Associate of Arts degree from Haskell, “I was thinking about what I liked to do, what would be beneficial, make me feel good about being employed,” Knoxsah said.

Knoxsah remembered the teachers at the All Nations program for Native American students at South High School, and knew she’d landed on her dream job. “A high number of Native students started the program, but didn’t graduate,” she said, estimating that of her All Nations class of 60, only seven continued on to graduation. “Those teachers-I want to do for other kids what they did for me,” she said.

Knoxsah will graduate with her B.A. in American Indian Studies December 2008, and then it’s off to graduate school before applying for teaching jobs within the Native American community. Going to school and single-parenting two children is, Knoxsah said, “hard. It’s real hard. You need to hold on to your dream, don’t let go. You don’t have to worry about what other people are saying. Keep holding on to that dream. Don’t let anyone crush it.”

The community college option
Minnesota’s community and technical colleges are often an entry point for single mothers who want a cost-effective, smaller school introduction to higher education. Those students pursue a two-year Associate of Arts (A.A.) degree, with an eye toward credits that will transfer to a four-year bachelor’s degree program at a college or university.

Not all community college students are planning to transfer to a four-year school. Some aim to complete a two-year degree or a shorter certificate program. Popular choices are paraprofessional programs and technical certifications.

Many community colleges offer support services that single mothers qualify for, said Michele Jersak, a counselor at Century College in White Bear Lake. “At Century, we have student support services, and many of the students who qualify are low income and the first generation [in their family to pursue higher education]. They are very often single mothers.” The services Century and other schools offer include tutoring, some case management services, assistance with time management, special help in locating financial resources, and visits to colleges and universities for those interested in transferring. And, according to Jersak, “Daycare assistance is huge.” Students in specific programs qualify for different types of daycare assistance; community college student support services can help navigate the maze of potential assistance, Jersak said. A point of entry for many students is the financial aid department or counseling services.

Pregnant in high school
Just one-third of teenage mothers finish high school. In contrast, 61 percent of single women who become mothers at the age of 20 or 21 have graduated from high school. A former single teen mother named Lois Vosika-Weir is doing her best to change those numbers. It can be an uphill battle.

“Ninety-eight percent of our students live in poverty,” said Vosika-Weir, program coordinator of the Adolescent Girls and Parenting Education (AGAPE) program of the Saint Paul Public Schools. “[After they have a child] they are perceived as adults now by their families, who often feel it’s time for them to take responsibility for their own lives.”

The support they get at AGAPE helps with that responsibility. Last year, 35 of the program’s 37 graduating seniors went on to some kind of post-high school education. “They are trying to find a future for their kids,” Vosika-Weir said. “A lot of them would have quit school if they hadn’t gotten pregnant.” She speaks from personal experience: Vosika-Weir herself was a teen mom who completed high school and went on to college. She is the first to admit that she could not have done it alone. “I would not have graduated without Upward Bound and the U’s [Student Parent] HELP Center,” she said. “I was in shock when I went to college, about how different it was. “

In addition to the one-two knockout punch of poverty and too-early parenthood, AGAPE students struggle with negative public attitudes about teen parents. “Resources in the community have improved, but perceptions have not changed. You get on a city bus with a baby and the perception is, you’re done, you’re limited [in what you can achieve]. You must not be too smart if you got pregnant,” Vosika-Weir said.

They are smart enough to learn from their own experiences, though. Even the students who have attendance problems want their children to have a different experience. “By the time they graduate, our students have a different vision than when they started here,” she said. “They have a strong vision of a different life for their babies. They tell us, ‘My child has to be in school. Every day.'”

It’s disappointingly rare for single mothers to obtain a bachelor’s degree. We talked to experts and student moms about why some women succeed where others fail. They named five factors that can make the difference between success and failure:

Financial support. Joan Demeules of the College of St. Catherine lists childcare as the No. 1 concern of single mothers. “It’s impossible to concentrate in class if you are worried that your child is not safe and being cared for,” she said. Housing is another necessity that can stop student mothers in their tracks, and rising tuition often means that a mom who graduates gets not only a bachelor’s degree, but a boatload of debt.

Personal network. Having a personal support network is key for students like Faaria Husain, whose parents frequently watch her son not only so she can work or study, but also so that she has time to relax. Often single parents can be a great support for each other through informal childcare co-ops or other types of mutual encouragement.

Ties to the campus. Feeling that you belong is important, said Susan Warfield of the University of Minnesota: “The feeling of connection to campus is one of the greatest predictors of success,” she said.

Organization, organization. It was unanimous: All of the single mothers we spoke to said being hyper-organized gets them not only through the day, but helps meet their long-range goals. “If we want to have ‘spontaneous fun,’ we plan it a week in advance,” Husain said.

Eyes on the prize. “It’s real hard,” said single mom Ona Knoxsah. “You don’t have to worry about what other people are saying. Keep holding on to that dream. Don’t let anyone crush it.”

AGAPE is located at 1919 University Ave. W., Suite 400, St. Paul. 651-228-7746,

The University of Minnesota’s Student Parent HELP Center is located at 24 Appleby Hall, 128 Pleasant St. S.E., Minneapolis. 612-626-6015,

The College of St. Catherine’s Access and Success Program is located at 493 Coeur de Catherine, 2004 Randolph Ave., St. Paul. 651-690-6894, St. Kate’s Access and Success Not solely focused on single moms in school, but has good resources for those who are. Friendly, supportive site produced by an Arizona single mom

www.collegemommagazine Comprehensive site edited by single mom expert Katherine Arnoldi