Earning a college degree can be the biggest game-changer for single mothers struggling to build a life for themselves and their children. But obstacles like finances, transportation and child care often get in the way.
It helps to have the support and information offered by the Single Mothers Academic Resource Team, women involved in the program say.
Ashley Atkinson, 20, is taking a full load of classes at Oklahoma City Community College this semester, working as a nursing assistant overnight at a nursing home and taking care of her 2-year-old son, Ayden.
She’s also involved with the SMART program.
“When I first started college, I was really skeptical,” Atkinson said. “I was kinda like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ But being in this program has helped me a lot.”
Atkinson said she and other moms in the program compare study habits and tips for balancing home life, work and school.
But the most important thing is the support she receives from Keisha Williams, the program coordinator.
“I visit with them one-on-one and as a group,” Williams said. “I hold a monthly meeting, which provides encouragement, emotional and academic support, life skills and information on community resources.
“I am not a counselor,” she said. More like a big sister and cheerleader.
Impact on children
Williams is employed by OCCC, which houses the SMART program at its Family and Community Education Center, 6500 S Land Ave. The center offers young mothers other resources, too, including child care services and access to the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
Williams’ position is funded by a grant from the Women’s Foundation of Oklahoma, which supports organizations focused on economic self-sufficiency for women. Her duties recently were expanded to help develop SMART programs throughout the state.
“It’s painful to watch these young ladies who have a child or two and have little hope of getting ahead. College can make a huge difference,” said Gloria Barton, a foundation advisory board member and former dean of admissions at OCCC.
“Some of these single moms have so little. Their families are struggling to get by,” Barton said. “The children of these moms have a hard road ahead of them too.”
Mom’s example of working hard to earn a college degree “has a huge impact on the children she is raising,” she said.
Atkinson said Ayden is a big factor in her determination to get a college degree.
“I feel like I owe it to him. I don’t want to raise him and struggle,” she said.
“And when he gets older, I would like for him to go to college also. I don’t want him to look at me and say, ‘Mom, you didn’t go to college, so why make me go?’”
Voice of experience
Williams encourages the single mothers in the SMART program by sharing her own experience.
She took college courses when she could over 15 years — between working and raising two daughters — before earning her bachelor’s degree in family studies and gerontology from Southern Nazarene University.
“There were so many times I wanted to quit. I wanted to give up,” Williams said.
But encouragement from her advisers at SNU and the desire to show her daughters “what success is” kept her going.
No one was more proud when she graduated, Williams said, than her older daughter.
Today, Briauna, 19, is a sophomore at the University of Central Oklahoma and Aysia, 15, is a sophomore at Carl Albert High School.
Williams uses that story to help young moms believe it is possible for them to complete college and be successful.
“You can do this,” she tells them. “I’ve done this.”
Support for student moms
I feel like I owe it to him. I don’t want to raise him and struggle. And when he gets older, I would like for him to go to college also. I don’t want him to look at me and say ‘Mom, you didn’t go to college, so why make me go?’ ”