Choosing Life — and a College Major

Catholic apostolate MiraVia helps single mothers and pregnant women pursue their college education.

MiraVia’s college-based residence provides support to single mothers and pregnant women pursuing a college degree.
MiraVia’s college-based residence provides support to single mothers and pregnant women pursuing a college degree. (photo: Courtesy of MiraVia)

Having a child means the end of a young woman’s education and career — or so the predominant logic of today goes.

MiraVia is one of several Catholic apostolates proving that narrative wrong.

Based on the campus of Belmont Abbey College, the ministry provides room and board, childcare and other resources for single mothers and pregnant women who are pursuing their college education.

Since opening in 2013, the apostolate has made a profound difference in the lives of women like Emilia Pippen. Pippen was going into her junior year at Belmont Abbey when she found out she was pregnant. She recalls feeling afraid, thinking that she wouldn’t be able to handle the challenges of both motherhood and study.

Encountering MiraVia changed her perspective. In addition to the generous material assistance provided, she said the community of mothers “going through the same thing” was a vital support.

Pippen gave birth to her son, Avery, and graduated from Belmont Abbey in 2017. She currently works for both the college and MiraVia, encouraging other women facing similar situations to trust that God has a plan for them.

“Your world is not ending,” shared Pippen in a video testimony. “In fact, it’s just beginning.”

 

Responding to a Need

MiraVia is one of several apostolates providing similar support on college campuses. Students for Life America’s initiative Standing With You provides a database of pregnancy and parenting resources for students in need, including the Mothers Living and Learning Program at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, and BabySteps at Auburn University.

MiraVia, which means “Miraculous Way,” originated in 1994 under the name “Room at the Inn, Inc.” in Charlotte, North Carolina. Executive Director Debbie Capen says there were two influences that served as an impetus for the beginning of MiraVia. 

One was the Feminists for Life study titled, “Perception Is Reality.” It “exposed the fact that the vast majority of colleges have little to no resources for pregnant students,” said Capen. 

The second factor was the generosity of Benedictine Abbot Placid Solari of Belmont Abbey. He told a board member that if they ever considered serving college-age women, the monks would donate the land.

“It was also at a time when the organization was doing its long-range strategic planning,” said Capen. “It became quite clear that this was a very underserved population of women, who were pregnant with no resources, that were slipping through the cracks.”

Capen got involved in the ministry after her own experience of being pregnant in college. Instead of offering her support, her campus health clinic simply advised her to look up abortion providers in the Yellow Pages. Sadly, estranged from her faith and feeling abandoned, Capen chose abortion.

As she experienced a reversion to her faith, she also sought to come to terms with what she had done. She received healing through Rachel’s Vineyard retreats and began supporting Room at the Inn’s pro-life efforts. When she attended the apostolate’s annual banquet and learned that they were planning to open a college residence, she recalls wanting to jump out of her chair and say, “Somebody gets this. Somebody understands this need for college students.” She began volunteering and eventually started working for the apostolate.

 

Set Up for Success

Since opening nearly 10 years ago, the MiraVia residence has been a home for students from nine different states who have studied at 12 different colleges. Counting its years as Room at the Inn, the apostolate has served 567 mothers and babies. 

MiraVia residents either attend Belmont Abbey College, which offers all student mothers full tuition, or other schools in the area. If student mothers are already at another local school, they usually remain enrolled there. 

“Depending on their focus or their major, we want them to be able to complete their education as expeditiously as possible,” said Capen. “It really is a case-by-case basis on what makes sense for them and their plans.”

Student mothers don’t need to be Catholic to come to MiraVia. “Just like any other Catholic hospital or Catholic college, we serve out of our faith, to support and protect women and the unborn,” said Capen. “We welcome everyone.”

Some student mothers are recent high-school graduates who are still figuring out their way forward. MiraVia has them meet with college counselors to determine their educational goals.

In addition to providing material and residential support, MiraVia also offers professional case management with a social worker on staff, life-skill classes and faith enrichment and Bible studies.

“[Residents] can now focus on making the right plans for their future,” said Capen.

Some moms choose adoption, while moms who keep their children can stay at MiraVia up until their child turns 2 years old.

"We really want to give them enough time and support that’s meaningful,” explained Capen, noting that MiraVia helps mothers find jobs, housing and childcare “so they’re not set up to fail.”

“They can adjust to pregnancy, then adjust to parenting, and succeed in school, and then they’ve got plans for independence,” she said.

 

Going Forward With Faith

Women who come to MiraVia often say the same thing: “Why isn’t this at every college?”

One day, Capen hopes it will be. Similar to Newman Centers, she envisions an apostolate like MiraVia at colleges across the country and is happy to partner with others looking to bring similar support to student mothers in their own region.

Capen trusts that if the ministry expands, it will be under the same spiritual patronage that got it started. Her predecessor at MiraVia, Jeannie Wray, prayed to Our Lady of Guadalupe for help with the fundraising needed to build the residence, promising to make a pilgrimage to Our Lady’s shrine in Mexico City. 

As Capen put it, Our Lady came through in an obvious way.

“It wasn’t on Dec. 12, but in the week leading up to Dec. 12, we received a donation out of the blue of over $100,000 from a donor we had never come across before,” she recalled. “It was clear that Our Lady of Guadalupe seemed to have a special place in her heart for this ministry.”

MiraVia has also been devoted to St. Joseph from the beginning. Capen says St. Joseph’s vocation as the protector of the Blessed Mother and Child Jesus made him a clear patron of the apostolate.

“He just seemed to be the right saint to look after the same needs that our moms have: the housing, the support, the strength, [and] the stability,” said Capen. “We have invoked his intercession many times, especially over the past year, in the Year of St. Joseph.”

Capen acknowledges that it can be scary to experience an unplanned pregnancy and to see one’s life go in an unexpected direction. Women are driven to abortion, she says, by fear and a lack of hope.

But when women “see the other student mothers who are happy and successful, that fear melts away. They can now envision a path that includes their education and the child.”

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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