Moms Head Back-To-School To Pursue College Dreams

Host Michel Martin talks to a group of moms about the challenges of returning to school to get a college degree. Regular parenting contributors Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker share their perspectives. Also joining the conversation: Robin Robinson, mother of one and student at the University of Maryland University College, and Allysen Todd, dean of Academic Affairs at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you'd see the few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for the common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Now we've been talking a lot about gearing kids up for back to school season, but what about the moms who are returning to the classroom. Today, we want to talk about the challenges moms face when they decide to go back to school. How do they balance tests and term papers with work and childcare, and just how important is a support system for a mom going back to college?

Joining us now, are our regularly moms contributors, Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker, and they're here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. We'd also like to welcome Robin Robinson, she's a mom of one and a student at the University of Maryland, University College. And also with us, Allysen Todd, a dean of Academic Affairs for the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. She joins us from the studios of American Urban Radio Networks. And I thank you all so much for joining us.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey Michel.

ROBIN ROBINSON: Thank You.

DANI TUCKER: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, it's funny. Jolene and Dani, we've had you in a number of times to talk about a lot of parenting issues, and it occurred to us that both of you are moms who went back to school when you were moms. So why don't we just hear your stories individually. So, Jolene, you went back to get your Masters Degree as a full-time student some years ago. How many children did you have at that time? You have five boys now...

IVEY: I had one at the time, and I had one on the way by the end. And I had this ridiculous idea that my baby would sit in the corner and play while I did my papers. So that was dumb. I had to have a reality check.

MARTIN: How was it as an experience, overall? You're going to have to tell the truth because I know the answer.

IVEY: It was the crucible. It was miserable. I would never do it again. And I'm just so glad it's over. I managed to get out. I got my degree. And I just don't know how - and I had, did it with the support of my family, that support network you talk about, you need it. You need it. And even with that, it was tough.

MARTIN: What was the hardest thing about it?

IVEY: Feeling I was neglecting my child because I had to write papers and study and go to class and do all those things that took me from him, even if I were physically present, I wasn't always mentally present. And I started hiring little girls to come play with him so that I could get some work done. It was tough.

MARTIN: Dani, now you have a, you're working on your, you're still working...

TUCKER: I'm still working.

MARTIN: On your bachelors. You had started...

TUCKER: Three times I went back, actually. Because the first time I went back, I was pregnant with Imani; DeVaughn was little, but I was still married. So I had dad there. But then once we separated, I eked out maybe a semester each within two years. Because for my kids, being by myself and still having to work - their schedules were just too hectic. And especially for my oldest, for my son. He required my attention, my full attention.

So I had this idea like Jolene, that we were all going to do our homework together. And that didn't work out. Cause there were times I had to be at class, but you had to be at football practice. And I'd realize that me missing school was not as important as him missing football practice, because he needed his outlets that helped him with - not just in school, but also with his release, with his ADD.

MARTIN: So the hardest challenge for you was scheduling.

TUCKER: Definitely. Scheduling and being able to focus, for me. We have guilt. I know I have feelings of guilt doing that. You know, I always felt like I was taking away from them because I had to go to class, or you know, they couldn't have mommy for this time. And so once I got over the guilt, and gave it my all, but I just felt like, you know what, I will do this when you all go to school.

MARTIN: Robin, you're the mother of a nine year old and you're in school now - University of Maryland, University College and we're all cheering you on.

TUCKER: Indeed.

MARTIN: But before that, you went through a program for student moms at Prince George's Community College to get your Associates Degree. And then you work for that program, now. So talk to me about what - you're still at it. So what's made the biggest difference for you and being able to stay at it?

ROBINSON: What made me stay at it is that I needed to reach my goals, as far as getting that degree because I was told so many times that when I have a child, I will not make it, and it'll be too much responsibility.

MARTIN: Who told you that?

ROBINSON: Some family members, some friends. I mean, it was so negative, that I wanted to prove them wrong. And that's what kept me going, that's what kept me going to class, doing my work. As I said, I have to prove them wrong. I have to.

MARTIN: What are you studying for? What's your goal?

ROBINSON: Right now? My major is Criminal Justice and Homeland Security.

MARTIN: So, what's the ultimate goal, though? Why did you want to go back to school to get your degree?

ROBINSON: I wanted to be a role model for my son. And not many people, there's only like three people in my family that actually went to college and got their degree. And I wanted to be the fourth person to get that.

MARTIN: All right. And we think you will.

TUCKER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Allysen Todd, let's bring you into the conversation. How common is this, what you're hearing? How familiar is this to you - the kinds of things you're hearing now?

TODD: Extremely familiar. They could all be sitting in our classes at CCAC in Pittsburgh. This is a group of students who are stalwarts in my eyes because they are dealing with a number of personal issues from home, as well as a rigorous academic curriculum and many of them, I don't think, are used to ever putting themselves first. And so, I think that's part of the guilt cycle that any time that they devote to doing their school work or even attending class, they feel that they're stealing it from their children. And so I have a great deal of empathy and respect for what these women go through.

MARTIN: Now you helped run a program that offered free tuition, free books and childcare...

TODD: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...to low income mothers so that they could get degrees in biotechnology. The program started three years ago, 22 women were in the program to begin with and the first five got their diplomas this past May. What do you think made the difference for these five women?

TODD: Undoubtedly, it was the fact that they belonged to a learning community which we formed on their behalf. And that involved trying to arrange for a class schedule that they had in common so that they were going to classes together. They were experiencing the same instructors and other classmates together. So there wasn't this sense of isolation or being very different from the student body.

And that's often a perception I think that mothers have. They don't have an opportunity, at least on the front end, of knowing what their classmates have to deal with, so they just assume that they're the only ones. And it's wonderful when they find out they're not alone.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's our weekly parenting segment. We're talking about the challenges facing mothers who are going back to school while they're still actively parenting their children. And I do think that some of the things that we're talking certainly pertain to fathers as well. We just happen to be focusing on mothers today.

With us are our regular contributors Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey, both of whom went back to school - have gone back to school while they were moms. Also with us, Robin Robinson, she's a mom and she's a student at the University of Maryland, University College, and Allysen Todd, dean of Academic Affairs for the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh.

And Allysen, I just want to mention that as we said, 22 women started the program and a dozen eventually left the program for academic or personal reasons, including one, as I understand it, who finished the first year with a perfect 4.0 grade average. So she was doing well.

TODD: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Why were people dropping out?

TODD: Well, in her case, it was due to the involvement of her partner in illegal business and she was afraid to stay in Pittsburgh. She had to get out in order to protect herself and her children, so she had to leave.

MARTIN: Dean Todd, I haven't forgotten my other guests, but I did want to ask though, there are those who would listen to this and they would say you're already providing a very high degree of support. I mean free tuition, free books, a laptop, child care and if people can't make it with that level of support and if you have an attrition rate of like something like 50 percent, I think there are some people who would ask, is that money well spent? You know, what would you say?

TODD: Absolutely. Because we're talking about human beings. We're talking about mothers who - and not just them, but whatever measure of success they experience they pass on to their children. So we're talking about another generation. So, as far as I'm concerned, it's a wonderful and well-worth an investment.

MARTIN: Let's ask some of the other guests about what are some of the, getting to the common-sense portion of the conversation, what are some of the things that have made a big difference and make a big difference in being able to make it work - to actually get through it all? Robin, do you want to start? What's made the difference in your being able to stick with it when other people have not, especially given that people were telling you, you couldn't do it?

ROBINSON: With me I always had another support system besides my family, besides the ones that actually root for me, I had a mentor who helped me get through it as well. There have been a lot of times in where I wanted to just stop because my mom got sick, kept getting sick and it was so many things starting to occur like back to back. And then I just kept it. And then to have God in my life as well, that's what helped me as well.

MARTIN: What does your son do while you're doing your homework? Do you try to get him to do your homework together?

ROBINSON: Yes. He'll do his homework while I'm doing mine or either I'll help him with his homework first and then I'll let him go watch TV or play a game while I'm doing my homework. Most of the time what I will do is have him go to bed early. He goes to bed about 8:30. He's asleep about 8:35 and then after that, then I'll have, that'll give me more time to do my homework or do whatever it is that I need to do without neglecting him. And then also, in the morning, before I get him up, I always get up like an hour - two hours early so I can finish up on homework that I'm doing or if I need to study a little bit more, I'll do that as well.

MARTIN: Do you make any special provisions around exam time, for example? Do you call in extra reinforcements or something? Do you put the call out for casseroles or something like that to give yourself some extra help?

ROBINSON: Usually around exams I'll study throughout the semester so it's not that really complicated towards the end.

MARTIN: All right, so you're not a crammer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IVEY: She's a good student.

MARTIN: She's a good student. Is there ever a point in which you have to say to family members, I simply, well, I'll just, why don't I just tell it. Sometimes I find that family members just don't understand why you're prioritizing your academic work. I mean they think they can like call you up on the phone in the middle of exams and do not understand why you're not going to discuss these issues, because they really don't think it is as important as listening to their problems, okay? And so what I'm wondering is how, do you have a hard time explaining why you have to prioritize this work or do you just not bother?

ROBINSON: Usually I just don't bother. Because when I start to explain and then they'll just try to find other ways, other avenues into getting to my mind but I can't. It's like I have a goal and I have to reach that goal no matter what. And sometimes we have to kick those people out of our life, even though they are family, they are friends, we still have to do it in order to get to where we want to be in life.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you? What - and I do want to ask you though, since you were kind enough to share the guilt, you know, feelings with us, how you manage that - those feelings of guilt?

TUCKER: Oh, I'm still managing them because I got a lot about what Robin said and this was from close family. You know, it hurt me when somebody real close to me - I don't want to say who - it's like too late. Why are you doing this? So, you know, you do, you deal with that and I did feel guilty. I did feel like it was too late. So I said okay, I won't do another semester. But it was the kids and my grandmother. The kids were like, they felt like mom, why you stop? Not for us. I was like, yes for you. But I will stop for you. You come first but I'm going back. Nobody's going to stop me.

My grandmother was like, I was 55 when I did it. When she was 55 when she walked across stage at AU and she used to take me and my little cousin to class. We were old enough to sit there and be still but she never stopped and she had to do a semester here and there and a semester here and there, then take off a couple and she never stopped. And that is my motivation. If I got to be 55, I'm getting my degree.

MARTIN: All right. But what would have made a difference for you?

TUCKER: I think...

MARTIN: I mean your kids are of an age where day care would not have been the answer.

TUCKER: Right.

MARTIN: You know, day care per se because they were old enough to have their own schedule so it wasn't a matter of taking them to a day care center. It was a matter of, you know, football practice and dance practice and things like that. What would have made a difference in your being able to finish?

TUCKER: More belief in me. By just like Robin said, it does hurt when your family - I'm not talking about just strangers - but people who are right there with you, you know what I mean, don't believe in you. And you already have a feeling, especially to my family, my family is the one I want them to know I'm a good mom and when your family kind of questions your motherhood, you, that really made me step back and say okay, maybe I shouldn't do this right now because it makes you feel like you're selfish and, you know. So that was the difference for me, you know, not having that family support like I would've hoped I had. But the biggest difference for me really is the kids because they have encouraged me no matter what.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? What made the biggest difference?

IVEY: Well, my family was a huge support. My parents expected me to get my masters degree. There was never a question. For them it was like graduating from high school, of course, you're going to get it. So they had that level of expectation, which is what got me there the first place. They were there to really help me with taking care of my son and all those kinds of things. It was really just tough for me just to do it. I mean even with that support it was tough, so, you know, what Robin's doing is amazing.

MARTIN: What was the hardest part for you?

IVEY: Just feeling bad about neglecting my child. I felt like I was neglecting him and he would get mad at me if I got on the telephone or anything like that. He would just be outraged, and because he was so used to - well, he wanted to have my attention and when I was in school it was hard to give him my attention do I felt bad. But in the end, I tell you, I wanted to carry him across the stage with me. I mean I really felt like he had been through it too. And I'm glad that I got it. I'm glad that it's behind me but boy, I'm glad I never have to do that again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Jolene, having gone through this, I know you said like, you know, if you had to do it over again you probably would've like to have gotten it out of the way before you started having kids, but you made it. So what's your best piece of advice for somebody's who is just starting out?

IVEY: I would say be realistic about what school is going to be like and figure out what kind of support you need to have and make sure it's all lined up and be willing to do what Robin and Dani were able to do, which is block out all the negativity.

MARTIN: Dani, is there a piece of advice you want to share?

TUCKER: Yeah, I would just expand on what Jolene said. I would add to that, just always remember your dream is just deferred; it's not over. You know, sometimes you may have to stop because I knew mothers who take and gone a year, like myself, and then they had to stop and they thought, I just should not just do this. Never give up. I mean even if you're 50 or you're 55, don't give up. Just never give up. That's my biggest advice to mothers who are thinking about it, please don't give up.

MARTIN: Dean Todd, can I ask you to, what is your best advice for people who are hearing some of the things that some of our parents have heard people discouraging them? Do you have some advice about how to address that?

TODD: Yes. I think it's very important that these ladies have mentioned, that they find someone with whom they can speak, confide in, talk out the problem so that they have some sort of venting that they can go through to help bear the burden. And I think also that they need to look for an individual at the school whom they find sympathetic or empathetic to their situation and not to be hesitant to ask for help.

Sometimes students feel that if they do that they're automatically signaling that they're dumb or that they need to be rescued from something, when in fact, we love to hear that. That a student comes to us and asks for help, that's why we're in the business we're in. So, I would say, find somebody that is can be a mentor to you and a confidante as well as find someone in the school whom you trust and you can go to with anything.

MARTIN: Allysen Todd is a dean of Academic Affairs at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. She joined us from the studios of American Urban Radio Networks. Robin Robinson is a mom of one. She's also a student at the University of Maryland, University College. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with our regular contributors, Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey.

And I wish you all the very best. And, you know what? You are going to get that degree.

TUCKER: I know. Thank you. I know.

MARTIN: I know you're going to get that degree. And you too, Robin. And Jolene, thanks for setting a great example. Thank you all so much.

TUCKER: Thank you.

IVEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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